Concept Gallo-Roman Museum - Gallo

The Gallo-Roman Museum opens up the past to anyone with an interest in the
fascinating world of history and prehistory, from avid history aficionados to
those with an occasional interest. The multi-layered but clear concept that
underpins the exhibition enables visitors to gain insight into the development
of civilisations, from more than 500,000 years ago to the early medieval period.
The distant past is visualised through 2200 authentic artefacts, displayed in
spacious and comfortable open spaces, and through a variety of media: from
texts and educational films to exciting animations and interactive elements for
children, as well as attractive scale models and lifelike synthetic figures.)
In short: what better place than the Gallo-Roman Museum to learn a thing or
two about the distant past?
The aim: to gain insight into the distant past
The Gallo-Roman Museum’s new permanent exhibition tells the story of human
occupation in the region known today as Limburg, from prehistory to the early
medieval period. The aim is for visitors to gain insight into past civilisations,
specifically to enable them to understand that the way in which a civilisation functions
is not coincidental; there are reasons why a society is what it is at a particular time,
why people do what they do and are who they are.
The focus is on causal relationships – not surprising, considering our motto: ‘What
follows is inextricably linked to what went before’. These words, attributed to the
Roman philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius (121 – 180 AD) inspired us in our
creation of the exhibition.
The point of departure: the story as told by research
The museum presents a comprehensive account of the early development of
civilisation. In doing so, it covers all the relevant aspects: political, economic and
socio-cultural evolution, as well as technological innovations and climatological
circumstances. Information on the daily life of our ancestors has been carefully
woven into this fabric. The multi-faceted story resulting from this approach was
written by the museum’s research team, using the wealth of publications available to
them and aided by fellow archaeologists who are specialists in particular fields, such
as periods or material remains.
Therefore, while the museum views its artefact collection as the main medium for
helping us to tell the story, the objects do not form the basis for the exhibition
concept. Rather than ignoring episodes that cannot be illustrated by means of
artefacts, visitors are informed on these by means of texts, films, reconstruction
drawings or scale models.
We present 2200 authentic artefacts, nearly 500 more than previously. Most are
simple items for daily use, gratefully used by the museum to help make carefully
chosen themes more tangible. This however does not mean that we do not have an
obligation to present them in a respectful manner and display them attractively –
quite the contrary.
The touchstone: an increasingly diverse public
In developing the exhibition concept we not only relied on experience and ‘gut
instinct’ or indeed on the professional designers whose help we enlisted. We also
carried out research into consumer behaviour, investigating whether visitors come to
an archaeological museum such as ours to learn something and if so, what and how.
For, not surprisingly, ‘learning’ appears to be the main motivator for all visitors. Our
study showed that visitors have a number of common preferences regarding the
types of information they hope to obtain through a visit to a museum, the way the
exhibition spaces are designed and arranged and the way they prefer to see objects
displayed. On the other hand, substantial differences between the preferences of
potential visitors were also established, for example with regard to media.
The museum’s ambition is to meet the needs of different types of visitors within one
space and one exhibition concept. The aim is for as many people as possible to state
at the end of their visit that they have learnt something fundamental about the past, in
a pleasant and accessible way.
A multi-layered exhibition structure
Both the exhibition structure and the use of a variety of media are aimed at making
fascinating but highly complex material accessible to visitors.
Introductory film
The exhibition begins with a short film. From the outset, visitors are aware what type
of museum they find themselves in, what they can expect from the exhibition and
how it is structured. In addition, through this visually stimulating introduction we aim
to encourage visitors to explore and make exciting discoveries. In other words, the
film provides a way for visitors about to enter the exhibition spaces to orient
themselves first, both spatially and in terms of exhibition content.
Layer 1: The leitmotiv: the main events – ‘pathway’ and key turning points
Facts as starting points
With our motto in mind, we have opted for a clear approach in which visitors are led
through the exhibition spaces chronologically in such a way that they cannot miss
anything and always maintain overview. Thus a ‘pathway’ is formed, leading visitors
through the exhibition by means of a succession of ‘facts’: key events or
developments, presented in brief texts with clear date indicators on recognisable
pillars. These ‘facts’ provide visitors with immediate clarity – information that is
succinct and to the point. Thus, even visitors who are pressed for time or who are not
inclined to spend hours in a museum will leave as satisfied customers, as they too
will have gained essential information. The ‘facts’ function simultaneously as a basic
introduction to the information presented in Layer 2.
Four key turning points
Introducing turning points in chronological evolution is always an artificial affair. Yet
we have very carefully and deliberately identified four key turning points and would
like our visitors to literally pause to contemplate these four fundamental transitions.
The first of those we have placed at ca 500,000 years ago, when human occupation
in this region first occurred. This marks it as the starting point for everything and the
obvious beginning of our story.
The second turning point has been determined at 5300 BC, when farming began in
the region. At that point, the society of itinerant hunter-gatherers, which for hundreds
of thousands of years had not changed significantly, began the process of becoming
an agricultural society.
The third turning point we have set at 825 BC; it marks the demise of more or less
egalitarian societies and the onset of a situation in which farmers were ruled by an
And finally: 10 BC. In that year the Romans founded Atuatuca Tungrorum, the first
city ever founded in this region. Nearly all aspects of life and society changed – a
regional variation of Roman culture emerged.
Each turning point is illustrated by an authentic artefact, adding its own information
about the societal transformation. In order to emphasise the beginning of a new
period, designer Niek Kortekaas decided to create enormously enlarged synthetic
replicas of the artefacts. Visitors cannot miss the matt silver-coloured objects – one
virtually runs into them.
Layer 2: The exhibition clusters, including artefacts, texts, films etc.
Layer 2 delves more deeply into the information featured in Layer 1. This allows
visitors to form a comprehensive and in-depth picture of life in this region during a
particular period. The combination of an open design, chronologically structured and
clearly delineated themes and a clear overall structure, containing such elements as
a chronological pathway and key turning points, allows visitors to ‘read’ the exhibition
in one glance. Those who look more deeply will discover a multi-layered concept,
supported by a diverse use of media. Throughout, the aim has been to find a balance
between content, design, collection and media such as text, film, scale models and
other objects, and to make the information as accessible as possible.
Objects: a sober presentation
Despite the wealth of artefacts presented, the display cases are never overly full.
Unless there are extremely good reasons to do so, we prefer not to display large
numbers of the same types of objects. By giving objects ample space we can do
them justice.
In addition, the display cases are in harmony with the general design of the
exhibition. Some displays are free-standing, without the use of a glass display case.
While this is an obviously attractive option for larger items such as architectural
elements, grave stones or figures of deities, a shelf full of pottery will also raise
visitors’ interest. Whatever the mode of presentation, objects were always selected in
light of their function within the story as told by research.
Texts: clear structure, clear language
That story is presented as concretely and clearly as possible. The main texts contain
a heading and a ‘lead’ summarising the main points, so that visitors can be quickly
informed of the essence of the display. The language has been kept deliberately
simple and jargon-free. Also, it is not strictly necessary to read all the texts from start
to finish, although for those who wish to do so, there is the opportunity to read more
in-depth information; panel texts are ubiquitous but discreetly positioned. For those
who prefer for the artefacts to tell the story, there are brief descriptions in the display
cases. For visitors who require information in other languages, a handy guide
containing all the above information has been compiled.
Educational artwork
Artwork such as reconstruction drawings can be found throughout the exhibition.
Within the display cases they often clarify the function of an artefact, while on the
panels they illustrate the overall theme of the display. Presented as full-sized murals,
they lend atmosphere to a space while simultaneously fulfilling an educational role.
Lines of thought: the boundaries of knowledge
Notwithstanding the large amount of text and artwork that we offer our visitors, there
are limits to our understanding of the past, especially the distant past. Even for
specialists who spend their lives analysing a particular material, many questions
remain unanswered. We aim to instill in our visitors an awareness of these limitations
to our knowledge. The simplest option would be to keep certain information
deliberately vague and to avoid themes on which there are few data. This however
we have consciously avoided. Instead, the Gallo-Roman Museum has taken the
approach of ‘lines of thought’: in succinct panel texts and short films, the museum’s
archaeologists dwell briefly on the various hypotheses surrounding a certain theme.
We thus aim to explain that, despite the clear presentation, our knowledge of the past
is relative.
Archaeology: How do we know...?
That said, we make it equally clear that the information presented is underpinned by
robust research. Occasionally we offer our visitors an insight into archaeological
research methods: how we know what we know. Currently this is done by means of
brief texts as part of the exhibition; soon these texts, which address the question
‘How do we know…’, will be replaced by audiovisual productions. Thus we will
provide the visitor with a visually appealing answer to the ‘how’ question, as well as
more insight into archaeology as a science.
Animations and interactive elements for children
Simple animations and interactive elements have been developed specifically for
children between six and twelve who visit the museum with their families. Rather than
placing them in a separate ‘child zone’ we integrate them into the exhibition,
wherever the themes they address occur. They follow the same format, the animation
style in particular making them immediately recognisable for our younger visitors.
Lifelike figures
For children, or indeed adults, who would like to see what people in the past may
have actually looked like, we have created lifelike figures made from synthetic resin.
For while the Gallo-Roman Museum tells a general story of societal development and
change, it gives this story a human face. Visitors’ eyes are instantly caught by the
figures, whereupon they become absorbed in the themes they serve to illustrate.
We frequently employ the medium of film in order to visualise the past. Particularly
techniques such as the production of flint tools or arrow heads or bronze-casting are
visualised in great detail. These productions therefore contribute both to the general
atmosphere as well as to the knowledge base. The same applies to the 3D
representation of the interior of the townhouse of a wealthy Roman – a symbiosis
between archaeological research and audiovisual technology, resulting in a highly
realistic reconstruction.
Scale models
Although considered by some to be a touch old-fashioned, we view the scale model
as a highly useful medium and have made ample use of it. Few media visualise a
longhouse with a byre, an urn field or a Roman villa more attractively and clearly than
a scale model. In addition, our sober, free-standing scale models are made of a type
of material that allows for them to be touched. The greatest eye-catcher is that of
Roman Tongeren as it would have looked in AD 150.
Layer 3: the wider European context
In information layer 3, the visitor will discover the larger cultural region of which this
area was part at particular points in time, and whether this area was on the periphery
or at the heart of that wider region. The relevant cultural region is indicated on a map.
External influences such as the arrival of the first humans or the first farmers are
represented through animated maps. So too are technological developments
introduced into this area from elsewhere, such as the use of carts and animals for
traction. Naturally these ‘moving maps’ also show the growth and decline of the
Roman Empire. Such an approach is in line with our motto: events here are
permanently influenced by external factors, which may have been underway for
centuries: ‘What follows is inextricably linked to what went before’.
Story and design
The ground floor exhibition space is dedicated to the lives of the first humans,
during the unimaginably long period between 500,000 years ago and 5300 BC. In
their search for food and flint, Neanderthals, followed by our modern human
ancestors, moved around through a landscape as yet unchanged by human hands.
They regularly pitched camp and, after some time, would move on again. Only when
the climate became milder were they able to survive here. These ancient hominins
and humans developed ingenious hunting techniques and manufactured efficient
Chopping tools, handaxes, flakes, burins and scrapers are presented display cases
that are integrated into monumental zinc beams crossing the exhibition space.
The latter also function as platforms for the lifelike resin figures and stuffed animals
in dramatic poses, as well as bearing the panels and films. A forceful element binding
this large space together is the full-sized mural of a hunter-gatherer camp.
The first-floor exhibition space is characterised by a circular wooden fence. The main
‘facts’ are presented on transparent panels and in the centre are several monumental
replica trunk fragments of lime trees. Visitors can stroll between table-shaped display
cases and pause here and there, depending on what they are interested in.
In this room visitors will first be introduced to the new agricultural society that
began to develop in this region from 5300 BC, when a radically new way of life
emerged in the south of the region. These were farmers who actively changed their
environment, felling trees to make way for arable and farmsteads. On the sandy soils
of the northern part of the region, hunter-gatherers had been roaming around for
millennia; their itinerant existence had never changed significantly. For these groups,
the arrival of farming had enormous consequences – slowly but surely, the hunters
adopted the lifestyle of the farmers. Characteristic artefacts of an agricultural society
are pottery, quern stones and polished axes to fell trees, to name but a few. Other
aspects of the farming society are also highlighted: flint mining, the crucial role of
livestock (as evidenced by the longhouse with a byre) and the emergence of new
burial practices. During this period, all members of a community were cremated and
buried in a communal urn field. Hundreds of urns bear witness to this practice during
this cultural period. Also highlighted is the onset of the use of metal, and finally the
mysterious phenomenon of ‘depositions’, a set of deliberately buried objects.
Visitors who are only interested in the main points can keep to the edge of the circle;
those who wish to find out more or who would like to study the objects at leisure, can
delve into the centre of the circle. However, they too are continually guided back to
the edge.
In the second half of the circular room, the focus is on the next key transition: the
emergence of an elite. Around 825 BC, iron objects from Central Europe and salt
from the Dutch North Sea coast were introduced into this region. A lively trade
developed, in which local surpluses were traded against these highly prized
commodities. Ambitious heads of families competed to take up key positions in these
new trade networks. An emerging elite succeeded in taking control of the
transactions and the distribution network, which marked the beginning of the end of a
society that had always been more or less egalitarian. The farmers were now ruled
by a small group of power-hungry people, presenting themselves as the elite.
Prestigious objects found in elite burials are illustrative of the close ties this region
maintained with the Celtic world from 425 BC. The Celtic grave goods from
Wijshagen (Meeuwen-Gruitrode) bear witness to this. From 250 BC, people began to
organise themselves into larger communities or tribes, led by warlords; this particular
region formed the heart of the territory of the Eburones. Around 52 BC, this tribe too
succumbed to the Romans – the first written evidence for the history of the region.
The battle between the Eburones and Caesar’s army forms the grand finale of the
exhibit in this circular room. This is emphasised by the design: as on the ground floor,
there is a large mural, depicting an episode from the battle. In the foreground are two
lifelike figures made from synthetic resin, dressed in impressive battle gear – a Gallic
warrior and a Roman soldier. Here we present two of the most spectacular artefact
assemblages: a cache of gold torques and a hoard of coins from various tribes
conquered by Caesar.
On the museum’s top floor, the connecting theme is the romanisation of the region:
a regional variation of Roman culture emerges. Atuatuca Tungrorum was founded,
the region’s first city. Its location is no coincidence: on fertile soils and strategically
placed along the road from Boulogne-sur-Mer in France to Cologne in Germany.
Around 10 BC, Roman soldiers laid out the street grid and prepared the area for
development. By and by, the local elite moved in, building houses for themselves.
The Romans influenced virtually all aspects of the existing way of life: from
construction techniques and eating habits to personal care, fashion, legislation and
religion. It was the elite who were the most open to influence from Roman culture,
adopting many aspects of it and passing it on to other layers of society.
Here we stray temporarily from the chronological ‘pathway’ and adopt a strictly
thematic approach. In the first part of the exhibit in this room we zoom in on
Tongeren as a Roman city. The replica of Atuatuca Tungrorum as it would have
looked at ca 150 AD takes pride of place in the centre, while the other exhibition
clusters for this theme are arranged in concentric circles around the replica. In
contrast to the other exhibition spaces, this one has daylight. Here we present the
majority of our collection: clay and bronze statuettes of deities, jewellery, and glass
and bronze kitchenware as well as pottery.
We also present a hypocaust, a mosaic floor and a substantial amount of stoneware
such as the Jupiter column, grave monuments and fragments of monumental
buildings. In this exhibition space, media use is reduced in favour of the objects,
although we still offer interactive elements for children and a three-dimensional,
computer-operated, highly evocative representation of the interior of a Roman
The second part of this display takes a closer look at developments in the
countryside. The southern part of the region saw the emergence of gentlemen
farmers and their mansion-like farmsteads; cereal cultivation became more largescale and market-oriented. The farming elite was buried under tumuli, which still form
striking elements in today’s landscape. It is no coincidence that the most eyecatching display in this room is a funeral procession.
All over the countryside, Roman goods and habits were becoming commonplace,
even on the sandy soils of the northern part of the region. However, it is here that
people were most attached to the ancient traditions; they still lived under the same
roof as their livestock, as they had done for almost a millennium. In this part of the
exhibition space too there are replicas, such as those of a villa complex and a
In the last part of the exhibition we pick up the chronological thread. The succession
of events was gathering pace. Northern Gaul was hit by a large-scale economic and
political crisis. From 250 AD, various Germanic tribes crossed the Rhine boundary.
To make the city more defensible, the Romans turned Tongeren into a fortified town.
Slowly but inevitably, decline set in. In 406 AD, the Roman army withdrew from this
region and it came under Frankish rule. A full-sized mural of the crumbling town wall
illustrates the end of our story.