Glimpse inside Chichester’s long-awaited Novium

Jennifer Bowser, collections assistant, unpacking boxes with items for display
Jennifer Bowser, collections assistant, unpacking boxes with items for display

Within just a couple of decades of arriving as part of their unshakable drive for conquest, the Romans had transformed Chichester into a thriving community on the edge of their northern empire.

The impact which this advanced civilisation brought upon our country is still everywhere to be seen to this day – from some of the streets we walk and drive, through to engineering systems we’ve adapted and evolved over time.

But for the first time ever, we are about to get an even more direct portrait of our ancestors’ lives, as the city’s Novium museum in Tower Street offers a remarkable window into times under Roman rule in Britain between the 1st and 4th centuries AD.

Without doubt the centrepiece of its exhibits will be the city’s extensive Roman baths, which were first excavated in the 1970s and have until now had no proper means of being publicly displayed.

But after painstaking archaeological excavation, they are being brought to life with the aid of a giant-screen computer-generated display which is being placed above the remains.

Visitors will gain an appreciation of how the site has changed down the centuries, with the baths being surrounded by material from later Saxon and Georgian periods that underline Chichester’s status as a city which has undergone significant change through its incredible history.

From fragments of some of the earliest-known human habitation to be discovered in the area, through to intriguing memorabilia from the past 100 years including items salvaged from Chichester’s market, its story is told in an engaging, themed manner demonstrating very visually just how society has changed – and in some instances remained similar down the ages.

Thousands of artefacts

As the management team behind this innovative centre explains, it has been quite some undertaking to decide exactly what to include of its many thousands of artefacts gathered from half-a-million years of history in its care.

Tracey Clark, museum manager, said it had been well worth the wait for its arrival. She described it as ‘an experience of a lifetime’ for the small, dedicated team, who have spent the past few months carefully transplanting material from the old site to its present base, designed by leading architect Keith Williams.

Its ambitious construction is light years from the relatively cramped surrounds of its former site in Little London. It is hoped the innovative approach of thematic displays will engage with a broad range of visitors and showcase some of the area’s rich cultural heritage.

“I joined the museum in the very early stages of the project in 2006 and it’s gone through a lot of changes since then and it’s definitely exceeded our expectations,” enthused Tracey of her eventful time with the museum.

She added: “For me, there’s a wonderful feeling that with these new displays, like we have done with the toll board from the old Butter Market, there’s a sense you are in fact seeing these items for the very first time.

“There are also items we have had in our collection for maybe 40 or 50 years, but the public will never have properly had the chance to see.

“So we’ll be organising some behind-the-scenes tours in the near future.”

Councillor Myles Cullen, who has also kept a keen eye on the scheme from its inception, believed it would be a great asset to the city.

He described it as a ‘building of distinction’ that would have a real impact in terms of boosting tourism and offering real educational value.