Archaeology / Museums / Reviews / Travel

Review: Romano-Germanic Museum, Cologne

When I’ve not been busy visiting Christmas markets, eating Currywurst, or wearing Lederhosen, I’ve been using my weekends in the Rhine-Ruhr region to do a bit of sightseeing. Although you might not expect it from the heart of industrial Germany, there’s certainly plenty on offer here for the ancient historian or archaeologist. Bonn’s LVR-LandesMuseum, for one, was packed full of Roman grave stones. What’s more, they had a whole landlubbering floor dedicated to a temporary exhibition on ancient Greek seafaring – perfect for a Hellenophile like myself. The reconstruction Roman fort at ‘Bergkamen Roman park‘ is a fun day out for the whole familia, or at least for big kids who like to dress up. And – closer to [my] home – the Ruhr University’s on-campus art collection in Bochum puts side by side like peanut butter and jam the casts of ancient marble sculptures with modern abstract compositions. Today, however, I’d like to talk about the Romano-Germanic museum at Cologne: a great collection right in the centre of town, a mere schuhplatter away from the main square and cathedral.

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The museum – sky’s a bit bluer than the day we went. Photo from: http://www.reiseziel.koeln

The Romano-Germanic Museum was opened in 1946, but transferred to its present site in 1974. From the exterior, the museum is an impressive building for sure. A large glass window facing out onto the market square opens up onto a wall stacked up with gravestones and lapidary votives. Pressed up against this glass front, one can even see down to one of the museum’s key pieces, the third century AD Dionysiac mosaic. Some tourists take a quick snap and they’re done there – but much better to actually go inside. The collection is organised over three floors, with the older material underground and the later Roman periods upstairs. While the ground floor didn’t have any sort of café(!), it did have a few introductory glass cabinets on the pre-Roman history of Cologne. Granted, we galloped through about 50,000 years of human history in just six or so objects – but it was certainly interesting to see a museum which so unapologetically calls itself ‘Roman’ putting itself in the context of the longue-durée right from the word ‘go’.

Visitors will probably head for the downstairs of the museum first. Not only is this the most sensible chronological sequence, but it also takes one straight past the highlight pieces of the Dionysus mosaic, and the Sepulcher of Policius. I must have been so excited that I forgot to take proper pictures of the mosaic, so this additional snap from Wikipedia will have to suffice…Just next to the mosaic is another of the museum’s crown jewels: an interactive map of Cologne, which gives information on the various parts of the Roman town as we know them. It’s even projected in snazzy technicolour onto the wall. The rest of the floor is dedicated to two different collections. The first is a group of tombstones, sarcophagi, and grave goods. The second is a thematic collection, based around ideas from ordinary life such as ‘cooking’, ‘entertainment’, and ‘writing’. These were all well organised, well lit, and well labelled. Even better, opposite the display cabinets were ‘reconstructed’ domestic scenes, which showed more clearly how these objects might have been used in the home, outside the museum.

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Upstairs, we were into the later Roman period, and this dovetailed nicely into the collection of Frankish history. A real highlight for me was seeing the ‘Philosophers’ Mosaic’. This artwork shows seven sages from the ancient world, and it had originally turned up in 1844 during construction work in the city. The set up for this piece was fantastic, surrounded by reconstructed frescoes and set into a marble floor. Rather worryingly (/splendidly?), though, there was no rope around the mosaic. I wonder how many tourists ‘accidentally’ stray off the marble floor…I don’t know a lot about the German Middle Ages (well, almost nothing actually…) but I was very impressed by the ‘shiny things’ on show from this period. All of the Frankish objects (and, oddly, some anachronistic prehistoric material as well) were pushed to the sides or the corners of the exhibition space, and the Romans took centre stage. That did not distract from the enjoyment of the visit, though, nor from the fact that the whole collection was consistently very well laid out. And of course, I’m always a sucker for some nice late Roman transport amphoras…

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All in all, the Romano-Germanic museum at Cologne is well worth a visit. At €9 a pop (€5 with valid student I.D.) and open Tuesday-Sunday 10am-5pm, you’ll certainly be glad you we. And if nothing else, it was somewhere warm for us to pass a couple of hours on a bitterly cold November afternoon…

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