Museums are full of secret spaces, with many a door marked “Staff Only” or even hiding in plain sight like this hidden passageway in the British Museum. Some places have secret subterranean tunnels , whilst others have covert, clandestine caveats hiding in plain sight. Actually inside an object, if you can believe it.
If you have ever been to the V&A, there is a very good chance that you would have stumbled into their magnificent cast gallery on purpose, accidentally or accidentally on purpose. In case you haven’t, here it is.
Dominating the room is a cast of Trajan’s Column -two casts, really, one of the top half and one of the bottom. The real thing is about 30m tall – that’s nearly 100ft for those of you who don’t do the metric system- so it would take a room of vast proportions to contain it whole.
Take a wander around the cast of the top half of the column and you’ll notice something a bit unusual.
That’s right, there’s a door there. A door with multiple locks on it, sending a loud and clear message that access is denied. But when has that ever stopped this intrepid explorer? There’s always a way around those “Do Not Enter” notices! Until 21st September this door is being opened up as part of the London Design Festival, so we can see Military Secrets, a display from the museum’s former ceramicist-in-residence.
When I reached the door on my visit to the museum, it was locked. Of course it was locked. It’s not a proper museum adventure until you have to track down a guard and ask them to let you in somewhere… Luckily, the guard on duty was able to rally the keeper of the keys so I could get access to this oft out-of-bounds area.
There’s only room for one person at a time in the cramped and enclosed space.
Unlike the original in Rome, the cast lacks an internal staircase so you can’t get to the very top, but climbing the column isn’t the point of this adventure. It’s to see the secrets within, not the view without.
Rigler, the former ceramicist-in-residence has sculpted roses to be secreted in the towering totem of triumph. Why roses? All is explained:
“The rose is the ancient symbol of Harpocrates, the god of silence. Painted onto the ceiling of a Roman banquet or hung from the ceiling of medieval council chambers, it pledged those present to secrecy.”
The text goes on to tell us that “Sub Rosa” (literally, ‘under the rose’) is a term used to denote a military secret. Rigler has presented us with a secret rose in a secret place. So, by witnessing the piece, have I been pledged to secrecy too?