A day in the Ashmolean cast gallery

Helen Ackers started working for the BSR in our London office this autumn following her DPhil at the University of Oxford. Still an active member of Oxford’s research community, she recently took part in the Ashmolean Museum’s ‘Remembering the Romans’ day.



Helen leads a group around the Ashmolean’s cast gallery.

‘Last weekend I was involved with a public engagement day at the Ashmolean Museum ‘Remembering the Romans.’ The purpose of this event was to engage members of the public through an assortment of fun, family friendly activities including decoding inscriptions, dressing up as a Roman, listening to Roman stories and going on tours of the collections. The event was organised by Professor Alison Cooley [current member of the Faculty of Archaeology, History and Letters; Rome Awardee 1996-7], Dr Hannah Cornwell [Rome Awardee 2013-14; City of Rome course student 2006] and Dr Jane Masséglia and included a talk by the new Keeper of Antiquities at the Ashmolean, Paul Roberts [Rivoira Scholar 1989-90].

I am a classical archaeologist by training and before coming to work at the London offices of the BSR, I studied in Oxford, from my BA through to my DPhil. During this eight-year period I participated in a large range of outreach and engagement projects at university and museum level. Events at the Ashmolean are particularly satisfying as they allow us to bring a little bit of Rome to the public and encourage even regular museum-goers to engage with objects from the past, enriching their understanding of Roman culture and history. When I was studying for my BA I attended the BSR undergraduate Ancient Rome Summer School and the experience of seeing the objects and buildings I had studied was pivotal to developing my understanding of the ancient world. It is not until you stand in front of Trajan’s column and appreciate its height that you understand the many discussions of how this monument was read. It is also impossible to understand the shock and awe of Rome from a book. Museum days provide a similar opportunity, if on a more modest scale, for people to interact with the past.

My research is primarily concerned with Roman women’s portraiture. The topic of my DPhil is women’s portrait busts in the third century AD. It was for this reason that my job for the day was leading tours of the Roman portraiture in the cast gallery. The groups encompassed a broad range of people and age groups, from toddlers up, with varying knowledge of the ancient world.

NeroAs part of the tour we went down into the lower cast gallery, an area with limited access which none of the visitors had been to before. During the tour we discussed a number of Julio-Claudian portraits. The cast of Nero drew most attention. The head in question is a copy of the gilded bronze Nero, which is part of the Axel Guttmann Collection in Berlin. This is one of Nero’s later portrait types and his corpulent features and extravagant fringe of thick pressed waves always instigate a response, especially when the viewers are told who the portrait depicts. Nero’s dastardly reputation as the emperor who apparently fiddled while Rome burnt, despite attempts by revisionist historians to tidy up his image, prevails and, as a result, this is the emperor most people know. This knowledge heavily informs the way his portraits are viewed. When I ask what we can tell about Nero from his portrait the response is his decadent and immoral character, or answers to that effect.


As a scholar of Roman portraiture one of the first things you are taught and in turn pass on to students is that portraits were nearly always intended as positive evocations, designed to present the subject in a favourable light. Imperial portraits do not present truthful and undiluted character sketches but were heavily manipulated propaganda tools. Nevertheless, the instinctive response is illuminating. The trust viewers place in portraits, and the inherent idea that by looking someone in the face we can understand their character, is fundamental to understanding why the Romans spent so much time commemorating themselves and their rulers in this way. It is for this reason that teaching and talking to people with a general interest, but who are not necessarily portrait specialists, is a useful and often enlightening exercise. When looking at the cast of a portrait of Augustus wearing the Corona Civica, I asked a group who they thought this was – one four year old piped up ‘a king’! Despite Augustus’s careful avoidance of any royal tendencies in any propaganda, he did still appear as a king – with or without crown. Sometimes we see things clearest when we know very little.’

Helen Ackers (Administrative Assistant)

Images by Ewout Buckens