Yesterday I took myself off to see Pompeii The Exhibit: Life and Death in the Shadow of Vesuvius at the Discovery Channel building in Times Square – it’s only a couple of stops on the subway, and being a professional classicist I thought it would be remiss of me not to go and have a look. I even treated myself to the audio guide. I will admit that I was expecting to raise my trained classical eyebrow and feel ever so slightly superior, but I am delighted to report that I actually got a great deal out of visiting the exhibition.
This is mainly because of the simply superb set of artefacts that the curators have gathered, many of which I had never seen, and some of which have become totemic for teaching and learning about Pompeii. (Sadly no photos were allowed, so you will have to make do with scavenged links.) The exhibition starts with a two minute survey film, including the pleasing factoid that Latin contains no word for volcano, that gives a brief summary of the eruption and its context before releasing you into part one of the exhibition, focusing on daily life. There is then a chamber which attempts, in a somewhat hokey way, to do a reconstruction of the day of the eruption, showing a video of the increasing piles of ash and pumice on buildings and so forth, ending with the pyroclastic surge – from which, with a dramatic cloud of smoke, you are ushered into the room where the body casts are laid out. The final portion of the exhibition contains more daily life material, but it also focuses on the historical timeline of Vesuvius’ activity, and mentions the current concerns about what will happen if the volcano erupts again.
As I say, I have few bones to pick on the general presentation front – Discovery have been very careful not to repeat too many Pompeii Myths, and there’s no mention (for instance) of the old “rich lady found in the gladiator barracks” chestnut (exploded inter alia by Mary Beard here). The objects are laid out clearly, well lit and well spaced, and while some objects are replicas of originals, there are also plenty of actual finds to enjoy. Speaking personally, I found myself wanting to know more and more about The House of the Golden Bracelet, which provided most of the frescos displayed in the exhibition – including this gorgeous garden piece, depicting birds flying and nesting in a garden surrounded by trellis work. What intrigued me about this work, the first thing you see when you come through from the film, is the prominence of Egyptian motifs – there are two sphinxes at the bottom of the right hand panel, and a wee Egyptian style godlet at the bottom of the left hand panel. Plus you have those fascinating circular things hung at the top of the frames of the left and right panels, repeated in other garden frescos from the house, in contrast with the Greek dramatic mask in the central panel. I really wanted to know more about the Egyptian element here, especially given the more ‘traditional’ elements, but frustratingly the guide and explanatory notes didn’t touch on it – although they did note the presence of ducks and lilies in the fountain from the same house as showing Egyptian influence, which I thought was far less compelling.
Anyway, the House of the Golden Bracelet clearly had a cracking interior designer, and I’m going to follow up what I can. Especially the portrait of the Greek poet and librarian Euphorian – how they identified him I do not know, but I want to find out more.
There were also a number of finds from the Necropolis of Porta Nocera, including a simple beautiful monumental statue of a matron in the pudicitia pose with full stola and palla, and a selection of tiny dog statues that had been left as grave goods. There was a brilliant wee statue of a fertility god called Sabazius, sitting in a sculpture of a hand that was covered over with all sorts of other talismanic good luck figures like lizards and nursing mothers, that sort of thing. There were also replicas of some quite stunning plaques of Greek gods taken from a Herculaneum temple, antiques themselves for the Romans and in the archaic Greek style, including a stunning Athena/Minerva complete with gorgon head on her aegis. (I’m having A Bit Of A Thing for representations of Athena with the gorgon because of the Barbie Project, so I may have squeaked a bit when I saw this.)
I mentioned that they had a couple of knock-out totemic items on display. Chief among these were the casts themselves, taken of Pompeian dead during the excavations by pouring plaster into the impressions their bodies had left in the ash, often with astonishingly life-like results. The exhibition had some of the most famous casts on display – the dog found tied to his stake, the man found huddled with his hands over his mouth, the family group where the face of the baby is frighteningly well preserved. I have to say I was impressed by the dignity and respect with which the casts were displayed, allowing visitors both to view them and to appreciate the horror of the tragedy that they communicate. There is something very raw about it that I seem to recall didn’t quite come across when I visited Pompeii as a teenager and saw the casts lined up in a storeroom. (Of course, it may also have something to do with not being a teenager.)
I should mention two more iconic objects. The first is what I am going to call the ego sum lar familiaris statue (similar to this one), because it appeared on the front of a textbook used to teach English undergraduates Latin at Cambridge, and thus gained a bit of notoriety between me and my friends who studied English. It was quite amazing to actually see it in the flesh, as it always is to see objects which have become famous through reproduction on book covers and posters. The second was the dominus-ancilla snake bracelet, which has the inscription dominus ancillae suae (the master to his slave-girl) on the inside. This has become one of the fundamental story-telling pieces of evidence from Pompeii – the documentary Pompeii: The Last Day built up a whole subplot on it. It is exactly the sort of object that makes Pompeii so compelling for us today, because it gives us something to grasp on to, and to imagine people with emotions and lives similar but very different to our own. Of course, it’s also the kind of object that leads us off into flights of fancy and dodgy conclusions, but it doesn’t lose any of its personal power because of the ends it is occasionally put to.
I am going to close with a gripe (yes, there was a gripe), and that is about sex. There is a little discreetly located room that deals with sex, although the objects in it aren’t particularly raunchy – there’s a badly damaged fresco showing a threesome and four lamps which are so worn and displayed at such a bad angle that you need to squint to see the obscene designs, and even then I couldn’t make out two of them with my trained eye. The chief attraction of this room, however, is that it claims to recreate what a prostitute’s room in a Pompeian brothel would have looked like.
Oh, where to begin. Let’s start with the fact, discussed extensively by Thomas McGinn, that archaeologically identifying brothels and places of sex work is really very difficult, and the justifications for labelling buildings in Pompeii as brothels are often extremely flimsy. (This also goes for finds of golden jewellery later in the exhibition labelled as coming from a brothel. Really?) It is also extremely unlikely that a basic brothel room like the one the exhibition tries to recreate would have had a set of bed linen and cushions that look like they came out of the latest Bed, Bath and Beyond catalogue. The exhibition does, to its credit, point out that most sex workers would probably have been slaves – which, I have to say, only serves to highlight the comparative lack of acknowledgement that Pompeii was a slave society elsewhere. Even the section discussing the local economy labels people carrying a bundle of merchandise in a market fresco as ‘four porters’, which I think is unlikely.
However, if all I can find to really complain about is how the exhibition deals with sex and slavery, it’s actually doing pretty well in terms of its competition. The range of objects they have on show is rewarding for the professional classicist as well as the general public – as I say, I really appreciate being made more aware of the House of the Golden Bracelet. So I have no qualms about recommending taking a stroll down to Times Square, if you are able, and having a potter – given the mass market that they are aiming for, Discovery have actually done a very commendable job.