Fig.1. ‘Townley Gallery, Room V’. From Description of Ancient Marbles in the British Museum, vol V (1826). Photograph: Hathi Trust [Available at:] (Digitised by the New York Public Library)

Conversing with Spirits: The British Museum Columbarium

By Dr Nicole Cochrane

In 1808 a new gallery extension to the British Museum was unveiled to the British public by Queen Charlotte, the Prince of Wales and the Dukes of Cumberland and Cambridge. The new wing, named the Townley Gallery, housed the museums growing collection of antiquities from the ancient world including the vase collection of Sir William Hamilton, the Egyptian marbles acquired after Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Alexandria, as well as the collection of over three hundred ancient marble sculptures, reliefs, inscriptions and cineraria from the respected British collector Charles Townley, from which the space gained its name. My current research in preparation for my monograph, Conversing with Ancients: Collecting and Curating Classical Art in Britain, 1755-1930, explores the display and reception of ancient art in the Townley Gallery and how we can understand the creation of the modern British Museum. Drawing from this research, in this blog post I wanted to introduce one room of the Townley Gallery, to introduce a new way of interpreting this space as a museum display in the early nineteenth century and how we understand antiquities within heritage institutions.

The Townley Gallery was connected to Montagu House through two corridors which flanked an open courtyard. The first contained the display of the Campana reliefs, a series of ancient terracotta relief tiles dating to the 1st century BC. The second was fitted out in the style of an ancient columbarium, a type of tomb structure popular for the display and preservation of ancient cinerary vessels in the ancient world. Columbaria were often built either partially or completely underground and often contained rich decoration and housed the elaborate and decorative urns and chests which contained the ashes of the deceased.[1] The fifth volume of the museum’s publication Description of Ancient Marbles in the British Museum described the space as ‘fitted up in the form of a Columbarium, to shew [sic] the mode in which Romans deposited the Urns containing the ashes of their deceased friends and dependants’.[2]

Entered via a low lintel and lit from above, the Columbarium display would have been a striking departure from the environment of Montagu House. The main building, which in addition to being the former private residence, displayed objects within display cases and cabinets. This drew from the tradition of the gentlemanly Cabinet of Curiosity or Wunderkammer, complete with elaborate seventeenth century interiors.[3] In comparison the Townley Gallery, which was coloured a muted green colour, imitating green granite, and presented antiquities as singular objects for contemplation. The Columbarium, the only space in the museum to attempt any kind of historical recreation or display, had the effect of transporting the visitor from the land of the living (Montagu House and Cabinet style collection) to that of the dead (the Townley Gallery and the remains of the ancient world). The room displayed the sepulchral antiquities not as singular objects, but rather in a romanticised view, as if still in use. In displaying the remains of antiquity in the guise of a tomb it is as if the visitor must first pay their respects to the dead, or to pass through the underworld, to the domain of the ancients.

The Columbarium, as a transitional space between galleries, creates an effect of a tunnel through time, in which, through a contemplation of the ancients, time and space between antiquity and the present are collapsed and placed in dialogue with one another. Its sets apart the display of antiquity and the display of the cabinet as being separate spaces for different kinds of contemplation and reception. In her 1995 work, Civilising Rituals: Inside Public Art Museums, Carol Duncan illustrated how museums, particularly in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, were spaces removed from time, in which objects and artworks are presented as if in stasis.[4] I have only begun to explore the theories behind the idea of the Columbarium as a space outside of temporality, of the dialogue between objects and space and how these relate to the display and reception of antiquities in the early nineteenth century. The Townley Gallery illuminates the impact of space and environment within heritage institutions can create interesting dialogues between past and present and between object and viewer.

Dr Nicole Cochrane is currently British Association of Victorian Studies & British Association of Romantic Studies Nineteenth-Century Matters Fellow at the University of Exeter and Postdoctoral Research Assistant with the Heritage Consortium at the University of Hull. She was awarded her AHRC-funded PhD, titled ‘Ancient Sculptures and the Narrative of Collecting: Legacy and Identity in Museum Space, 1770-1900’, from the University of Hull in 2019. Her research concerns the histories of archaeology, collecting and the museum and particularly on the effects of collection and display on the reception of art. In 2021 (Covid permitting) she will undertake a Frick Collection Centre for the History of Collecting fellowship, exploring the Anglo-American trade in ancient art and the formation of antiquities collections in the USA to support the development of her monograph, Conversing with Ancients: Collecting and Curating Classical Art in Britain, 1755-1930.

[1] J. M. C. Toynbee, Death and Burial in the Roman World (Baltimore & London: John Hopkins University Press, 1971), p. 48.

[2] Description of Ancient Marbles in the British Museum, vol V (London: W. Nichol for the British Museum, 1826).

[3] M. Caygill, ‘From Private Collection to Public Museum: The Sloane Collection at Chelsea and the British Museum in Montagu House’ in R. G. W. Anderson, M. L Cayfill, A. G. MacGregor & L. Syson (eds), Enlightening the British: Knowledge, Discovery and the Museum in the Eighteenth Century (London: British Museum Press, 2004), p.22.

[4] Carol Duncan, Civilising Rituals: Inside the Public Art Gallery (Routledge: London & New York, 1995).


The Church of England and its many parts

Robert Piggott reflects on his Heritage Consortium placement

Undertaking a placement at the Church of England proved to be informative. One of the first things I became aware of was that the Church of England isn’t singular entity - its administration is broken up into several organisations, including the Archbishops’ Council, the Church Commissioners, and its Pension Board, as well as the individual dioceses and their parishes. My placement was working on the Church Heritage Record, an initiative of the Cathedrals and Church Buildings Division, which sits within the Archbishops’ Council and is based at Church House in Westminster.

My first weeks at Church House working were unseasonably warm and the central London location might have contributed to a feeling of having headed off on a city break. Certainly seeing Westminster Abbey from the office window and hearing Big Ben chimes at my desk was a novel experience. Obviously though I was under no illusions and was there to work. Having said that, when part of this work was to visit the expansive archive that is the Church of England’s Record Centre and Lambeth Palace Library, it didn’t feel too onerous. Added to that, I was also made to feel welcome in the office as a part of the team, albeit only for just over two months.

The Church Heritage Record (CHR) is a form of Historic Environment Record (HER) with individual records on the each of the buildings of the Church of England. HERs are generally set up by Local Planning Authorities, mainly in order to help developers assess the impact of potential developments on the historic environment, although they are useful tools for researchers too (go to and search for a place you are interested in). The CHR has been set up to assist parishes in the permission system that the Church of England runs for authorising changes to parish churches. This is known as Faculty Jurisdiction. CHR records are used to provide a range of information on a building, including an assessment of its significant elements in order to inform the process of consent.

The CHR has over 16,000 records and will eventually provide an unparalleled resource for researchers, but as it’s relatively new it’s still waiting for a fair amount of the information it needs.

As well as updating some of this low-level information, my main task was to research a record to the standards of the CHR. Not exactly at random, but without much care, I chose St Augustine’s, Kilburn. This was partly because of its spire, which was the tallest in London at one point, and partly because of its beautiful interior, which is filled with wall paintings and stained glass from the workshop of Clayton and Bell.

The church was also a short ride on the Number 16 bus from near where I was working and having arranged a site visit with the vicar, I and a couple of colleagues, went out to visit the church. We were treated to an impromptu tour by one of the churchwardens. This was as interesting as it was informative, and provided a good basis for describing the building for the purposes of the CHR. I combined this with a visit to Lambeth Palace Library and to the Church of England Record Centre, which are both hold a wealth of material, not only for ecclesiastical historians but for social historians too.

Updating entries on the CHR was what kept me busy through the majority of the placement, but I was also lucky enough to be able to sit in the gallery for a synod debate on the recent report of the Church Buildings Review Group, which was examining the future use and management of the Church of England’s buildings, a key theme of my academic research. It was interesting to see how this worked in practice, and the whole experience of the placement added a depth to my research which would have been unavailable otherwise.

The Church Heritage Record is being continuously updated and can be found here: If you are interested in possibly helping out with the record, contact

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