Museum without a Cause

This is the story of a museum built especially for the artifacts it was to contain. Unfortunately, things turned out a bit differently - be prepared for a journey into modern real-world satire.

About 30km outside of Rome, by the side of the Lake of Nemi in the midst of the National Park of the Castelli Romani, surrounded by hills and troughs of vulcanic origin, lies the "Museo delle Navi Romane", the Museum of Roman Ships.

A programmatic name.

The ships (or rather Floating Palaces) were constructed 2000 years ago on orders of Caligula, the third emperor of the Roman Empire. As many before and after him, he valued the Castelli Romani area in the summer for the cool climate, as life in the capital with the burning sun (and no air conditioning) can become quite strenuous. Not being content with countryside estates, he commissioned two floats - one apparently for ceremonial occasions, the other for more private reasons.

Over the course of time the ships were abandoned, and eventually sank, to be conserved in the muddy lake floor. One and a half millenia later a first attempt was made to resurrect them, but to no avail. It shall take another 500 years and the determination of a Knight of the Order of the Golden Spur until they were finally raised (tecnically this is not quite correct, as they wouldn't have survived a traditional raising - the lake was partially drained instead).

Like Phoenix from the water.

Now that the ships finally saw the light of day in 1932, it was time to give them a stable home. The Knight (also busy as the leader of the Facist Revolution) saw an opportunity to evoke the great history of the Roman Empire, and gave orders to build a museum on the shores of the lake: two large exhibition rooms, ready to accommodate the impressive ships (70m long, 20m wide).

Raiser of ships and spirits.

Construction began immediately, and the museum was inaugurated in 1936; it was completed just two years later. It must have been a magic place: 2000 year old ships, preserved reasonably well, on the shores of a quiet lake in a wonderful surrounding.

Unfortunately, the idyll did not last. In 1944, during a stray battle between advancing Allied and retreating Axis forces, the ships caught fire, and suffered total destruction.

But the museum survived.

Ashes to ashes.

And it remained open to the public; it seems that the absence of (the rather central) exhibits did not cause too much concern. Not in the beginning, at least - it took 18 years, and in 1962 the insight was gained that a "Museum of Roman Ships" without Roman ships did not make a lot of sense, and it was closed down - but not dismantled, only put into hibernation.

Hibernation under the sun.

Between 1970 and 1975 it was put into service again; not for the general public, but only for scientists. How many of them took up the opportunity to examine the non-existent exhibits is not known.

Prepared for next time.

Then something strange happened: the essential knowledge that a museum lives on its exhibits, slowly (and painstakingly, one has to assume) acquired over the years, was lost, forgotten or mislaid: the museum was reopened in 1988. It now is fully staffed, reasonably renovated, and open all year round. There's only one thing which slightly disturbs the picture.

You might have guessed it: The absence of meaningful exhibits.

With virtually nothing in it.

Not that it is completely devoid of exhibits, no: there is the odd bit and piece lying around, mostly from the nearby Sanctuary of Diana Nemorensis. And an old Roman road, on top of which the museum has been built, has been unearthed, and it is on view as it cuts through the museum. The irony that a museum built to house ships now has a road on display seems to be completely lost on the administrators, as there is no mention to that effect.

Shipping not included.

On a positive note though, in 1996 the "Lake Nemi Roman Ship Reconstruction Project" got underway, with the ambitious goal of recreating two fully functional replicas of the ships, which would again float on the lake. The total cost was initial estimated to be €7.1m (later revised to €10m), and the construction of the keel was started immediately. Already in 2002 it was ready, and was assembled in front of the museum in order to give an idea of the things to come.

Again, it shouldn't be: in summer 2008 the keel is still there on its own, patiently awaiting to be joined by additional parts...

Fighting for survival

against nature (again).

Dates of the museum's post-war history have been obtained from various wardens on several different occasions - even though they are in conflict with each other, every effort has been made to reconstruct a plausible timeline.

If you've read this far, please leave your impression in the comments section.