Visiting the Liverpool Conservation Centre of National Museums Liverpool

Posted on: 10 December 2021 by Eileen Wigley in 2021 posts

Students at the conservation centre with Dr Chrissy Partheni.

In the centre of Liverpool, there is a very unassuming building that looks like a piece of history on the outside, holding a literal treasure of well-kept knowledge. This is rather reminiscent of the purpose we were there for, to examine pieces of art worn with history and pick apart their deeper meaning. The place I’m talking about is the Liverpool Conservation Centre of National Museums Liverpool, home of over 1500-year-old diptychs that I and a few lucky others have come to see.

The diptychs are pieces of hand carved ivory which, instead of carving out the details, have the rest of ivory trimmed down to create raised up impressions of animals or people, and because of the rectangular shape  they seem like a 3D page in a book.  The majority of them are from around 5th century CE. With them being such excellent pieces of art, they were frequently gifted to Roman elites. Although they are pleasant to look at, we were not simply there to gawk; this has been part of my HIST260 module, which explores late Roman games and the politics around them. These diptychs were themselves gifted to the Conservation Centre by Joseph Mayer, a Liverpool based Victorian collector, where they rightfully remain as a prized possession.

Before I continue, it would be pertinent of me to thank Dr Chrissy Partheni, the Curator of Classical Antiquities, for not only showing us these diptychs but encouraging us to share our knowledge that was bolstered after she shared hers. We were allowed to see three specific diptychs: the Asclepius and Hygieia, the Clementinus, and the Venatio. Of all of them my favourite was Venatio (Latin for a hunt), which depicts participants hunting down animals under the view of 3 prominent figures, 2 of whom in the centre and left are probably the consuls.

Photograph of articles from the visit. Most notably, Venatio depicting participants hunting down animals

However, the most interesting one for historians is the helpfully labelled Clementinus diptych. It has upon it Clementinus flanked by two beings representing the capitals, Rome and Constantinople, and two children pouring out coins. Some eagle-eyed observers will see Clementinus is holding something very similar to the figure on the right in the Venatio diptych, which is known as the mappa, a piece of cloth used to start off the games.

Such things as the mappa are where I believe history begins. Triangulating primary sources in such a manner develops our understanding of evidence and allows us to create arguments based upon the very fickle past. I do often find myself considering the difficulty of maintaining and processing so much more history as time progresses, like is there ever a time where indecisiveness over difficult choices leads to important objects being lost? Or does keeping so much become a burden? Whatever the answers, I believe that the efforts of curators are necessary and even critical to ensure that ancient history such as I saw that day is preserved. As time marches forward it will be up to those workers in conservation to gently carry forward the sources that us historians would be lost without.