Ever since it was built in 1873, there’s been a tantalizing door inside the V&A Museum that normally locked, and only very occasionally opened — but now is open all the time.
This is the door at the base of Trajan’s Column, a plaster cast replica of the original that still stands in Rome. The 30-metre high column was built to commemorate Emperor Trajan’s two successful campaigns against the Dacians in AD 101 – 2 and 105 – 6. It is thought to have been designed and constructed under the supervision of the architect Apollodorus of Damascus, and illustrates the two campaigns in the designs, with a long frieze that spirals around the column.
A bit like the London Monument, there’s a staircase inside the original that once used to let people up to the top to see Rome beneath them, but it’s long been closed.
In 1861 Emperor Napoleon III requested that moulds be taken from the Roman original, so that a copy could be erected in Paris. In 1864 the electrotypes that were commissioned from the moulds were used as patterns to make the V&A’s plaster casts, and these were initially displayed in a series at eye level — so that people could admire the Roman detailing.
However, a decade later, the casts were moved, to be mounted on a tall brick column that was built in the specially designed Casts Court inside the V&A Museum. Even though the room was designed specifically to house Trajan’s Column, they still had to chop the column in half and it is still displayed in two pieces side by side.
The base was added, and for maintenance, a door put in. The base of the column has been used as a storage space ever since.
When the Cast Courts inside the museum were refurbished recently, it was decided that the doorway inside Trajan’s Column would be left open permanently. They cleared out the clutter, and put some new seating inside so people could have a bit of a rest in this small space.
Looking up, large wooden beams brace the cylindrical cast, and holes in the brickwork show where scaffolding was built inside the column during construction.
The brickwork is in itself an impressive feat, and in a room of such ornate artwork, the plain simple yet carefully constructed brick column stands out.
People have only rarely been able to peek through that locked doorway — but now anyone can wander in. Some did, glanced up and wandered out, not knowing that they were standing in a once-hidden space.
The door in the base of the original Trajan’s Column is locked and the stairs off-limits, but here in London, in the Casts Court, you can pass through the door that’s normally locked.