The Roman Baths: Britain's most profitable museum?
I make a visit to the refurbished Roman Baths at Bath.
On 9 September 2010, I was invited down to Bath for a Press Day at the Roman Baths. I had not been there for many years: indeed, I think I last saw the Roman Baths when Barry Cunliffe was still excavating there. I remember waiting for him, and then watching as he finally emerged from the bowels of the earth like Don Giovanni, surrounded by swirling steam, covered with mud. Since then, the Museum has been greatly enlarged to include a visit to what remains of the Roman temple that he discovered. They have just completed a £5 million conservation campaign, including accessibility measures and improvements to the interpretation, and the press day showcased the major developments that have taken place over the last five years.
The Roman Baths are a rare and possibly even unique example of a very profitable local attraction. It is owned and run by the Bath and North-East Somerset Council. The Heritage Services business unit has a turnover of around £12 million a year, mostly from entrance charges of £11.50 per person, though local residents can visit for free. There are also substantial profits from the shop and from room hire for weddings and events. The Service costs around £9 million a year to run, which means that they return around £3 million a year surplus to the Council. The local Council has accepted Heritage Services’ business case that reinvestment in the Roman Baths is essential, if it is to remain competitive in the 21st century. The £5.4 million development plan was covered by about £300,000 in grants and £750,000 from retained profits, while the remaining £4 million was borrowed at a preferential governmental interest rate to be repaid over the next 20 years through the Heritage Services business plan. How have they spent their £5 million?
The Roman Baths site is difficult to understand, for what is outside should be inside, and what is inside should be outside. The main feature is the great open bath with the Abbey in the background. In Roman times, this was covered by a huge vault, a section of which is now on display — which means that what is now in the open air was indoors during Roman times. There are the conventional appurtenances of a Roman bath house at either end, and adjacent to the bathing complex was a fine Roman temple dedicated to Sulis Minerva.
The major part of this lies under the Pump Room and, nice though it would be to demolish the buildings above, the Beau Nash aficionados might be a little unhappy with the proposals. So, the Great Temple can only be seen in parts, in the tunnels under the Pump Room.
Conservation versus Access
The first focus of their expenditure was conservation. The Great Bath was rediscovered in the 19th century, and what is today thought of as the ‘traditional’, formal surrounding was added in 1893. The pillars that support the modern surround stand adjacent to the original Roman pillars that held the roof. Both Roman and Victorian pillars were made of Bath stone with its glorious honey colour. In time, however, this turns black, and so the first task of the conservation was to clean all the blackened stone and restore its honey colour, using both traditional methods and also a new laser technique.
The needs of access also had to be addressed. Two lifts were added, and the audio guides were updated. They are particularly proud of the updating done for the deaf — the audio guide incorporates a mini TV screen, where information is conveyed in sign language. The shop, too, needed improvement. It is hugely profitable, and claims to have the highest sales per square metre of any museum shop in the country. This was partly because it was on far too cramped a site, but the selling area has now been increased by 15%.
The main attention was given to interpretation. Here, the Roman Baths are perhaps fortunate in that their ratio of school visits is comparatively low. Of their total visitor numbers of approximately 880,000 a year, only about 100,000 are from school visits, though many other young people come with their families. This ratio is much lower than in other museums, many of which see 50% of their visitors in the form of school visits, and who therefore feel impelled to pitch their interpretation at the level of an eleven year-old school child. The Roman Baths however, can be slightly more sophisticated. In the Great Baths, actors have been introduced who casually stroll around dispensing information. When I was there, a priest was on hand whose advice was strenuously sought, and who gave a splendid invocation to the gods calling for good health and happiness for all those present. And two elegant ladies with the very extravagant hairstyles, favoured by the Roman upper classes, took their ease by the Bath and were constantly in demand to be photographed with rather less elegant visitors.
Inside, particular effort has been made to display the great pediment of the Temple with its famous centrepiece of the image of the God Sulis, identified with Minerva. Sulis is perhaps the greatest example of Romano-British art, more British than Roman, its superb barbarism a triumphant demonstration of Roman artistic technique. The temple pediment is displayed in a small theatre with half a dozen stepped rows of benches, where visitors can rest and admire it, illuminated in a son et lumiÃ¨re display.
The big problem is how to show the temple itself, of which only part of the front pediment is available for exhibition, together with the stump of the great altar in front. The solution is a TV screen suspended from the ceiling, which begins by showing the scene as it exists today, then cuts away all the modern paraphernalia to reveal the Roman open air courtyard, with various actors going about their business and a couple of youths larking around and not quite being naughty. A similar technique is used in the great circular plunge bath, which lies adjacent to the Great Bath and is fed by cold springs. Here on the concrete walls at either end, ghost-like figures appear of the Roman bathers, coming in and playing dice or towelling themselves down. I saw a group of lady visitors staring entranced at a naked male backside which appeared fleetingly as a bather vigorously towelled himself down.
The Roman Baths at Bath are a very impressive display and a very popular one; in fact, they are one of the foremost heritage sites in England, and clearly one of the most profitable. The Baths are helped by the fact that they are on the main tourist route. When I was leaving at 4pm another tour was pouring in that had already done Oxford and Stonehenge that day, and, I am told, it is a popular school outing from London, from where it can be done in a coach trip in a day. They have what must be the most evocative school room in the country overlooking the Roman Baths. Nevertheless, they are aware that they need to make further provision for formal education, particularly if the political drive for free schools makes schools more willing to buy in outside education at full cost. This will be their next project, if they are able to raise a further £5 million whilst paying off the current £4 million loan.
It is fascinating to visit such a lively and profitable museum. Perhaps Neil MacGregor could take a day off from being Director of the British Museum, and take a day trip down to the Roman Baths at Bath to find out how a really financially successful museum can be run.