Behind the Scenes

Last Call: AHE’s Pompeii Exhibition Review

pompeii1Last call for the British Museum’s outstanding exhibition: “Life and Death, Pompeii and Herculaneum,” running until September 29, 2013.

Exhibition review provided by AHE contributor, Mr. James Lloyd:

Home to the Rosetta Stone, the controversial Parthenon Marbles, and countless other wonders of the ancient world, the British Museum needs little introduction. For a little while longer, the wonders of the exhibition “Life and Death: Pompeii and Herculaneum,” can be added to their prestigious collection. With over 250 objects on loan from the Soprintendenza Speciale per I Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei and the Directors of Pompeii, Herculaneum, and the National Archaeological Museum of Naples, this is a true spectacle, from carbonized furniture to life-like portraits; many of the objects have never left Italy before. What is unique about this exhibition is that it explores the two ill-fated cities through the households in which their citizens lived and tragically died. And that is how the exhibition is laid out; you enter the atrium through the streets of Pompeii, and pass into the Roman house as the ancients would have, through the atrium. This means that if you are looking for grand temples and magnificent public buildings, you will not find them here. Ultimately, this does not matter, because the Roman home imparts a variety of insights on Roman culture; religion, entertainment, politics, trade, and business are all presented in a way in which they can be better understood and appreciated. Indeed, the house acts as a front from which elements of Roman life can be explored.

pompeii2There has always been a fascination with these two cities in the English speaking world. The earliest English work on the tragic destruction of these cities was Gell and Gandy’s Pompeiana, first published in 1817-19, and soon thereafter appeared Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s 1834 novel, The Last Days of Pompeii, which caught the public’s imagination. There is something about Pompeii and Herculaneum that still resonates with us even now, and the British Museum captures their powerful and popular appeal. It is twofold: life and death. By being frozen in time, preserved to remarkable standards, the objects of the ancient citizens of Pompeii and Herculaneum enable us an unparalleled understanding of how they lived, yet the paradox of the situation is that the eruption of Vesuvius also preserved the exact moment of their deaths. Audiences will find themselves laughing at objects like as the statuette of a drunken Hercules, but then two corners later, stirred by the sight of an entire family preserved in plaster cast, captured for eternity in the moment of their agony.

There is a good combination of Roman extravagance, such as a 600 gram gold bracelet, and then the more banal objects of Roman life, such as a glass jar, still sealed with an olive oil inside it. Other highlights include the wall painting of the baker Terentius Neo and his wife, and a carbonized crib from Herculaneum. However, no matter what the object’s original attached prestige, these items are given equal importance, as are the two towns. The exhibition also makes use of modern elements to exemplify the message trying to be put across; when the display deals with the busy street life that went on outside the house, a stereo plays the sounds of horse drawn carriages and general murmurs of people busy with their daily tasks.

What I thought was particularly effective was the lighting changes between the displays that dealt with “life” and “death.” In the rooms which recreated the Roman house (life), there was a constant murmur of people; however, as soon as the lighting darkened and the plaster casts (death) replaced murals, everyone became hushed, and any comments were only as loud as the faintest whisper. Considering how busy the exhibition was, this is a true sign of its effectiveness!

Image Key:

  1. The peristyle of the house of the Vettii, Pompeii. The villa was preserved following the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE. Based on Wikipedia content that has been reviewed, edited, and republished. Original illustration by AlMare. Uploaded by , published on 11 March 2013 under the following license: Creative Commons: Attribution-ShareAlike. This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work even for commercial reasons, as long as they credit you and license their new creations under the identical terms.
  2. A Fresco (c. 60 CE) from the Roman town of Pompeii depicting Terentius Nero holding a scroll and his wife who holds a stylus and writing tablet. From the Villa di Guilia Felice. The villas of Pompeii were richly decorated with wall paintings depicting all manner of subjects such as mythology, erotica, architecture, trompe-l’oeil, religious practices, sports and family portraits. (Archaeological Museum of Naples). Original illustration by Mary Harrsch (Photographed at the Museo Archaeologico Nazionale di Napoli). Uploaded by , published on 15 November 2012 under the following license: Creative Commons: Attribution-ShareAlike. This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work even for commercial reasons, as long as they credit you and license their new creations under the identical terms.

jamesl150Mr. James Lloyd is currently studying for his BA in Archaeology and Ancient History at the University of Exeter in the UK, and has been a contributor to the Ancient History Encyclopedia since 2012. During his time at university, he hopes not only to broaden his knowledge of the ancient Mediterranean, but to further develop his main interests in Greek Historiography (predominantly Thucydides and Polybius) and Greek Architecture (particularly of classical and archaic temples). James is also interested in other topics related to history and museum managment, including the changing reception of plaster casts in Museums.

All images featured in this interview have been attributed to their respective owners. Unauthorized reproduction of text and images is prohibited. Special thanks is extended to Ms. Karen Barrett-Wilt and Mr. James Blake Wiener for their hand in editing this piece. The views presented here are not necessarily those of the Ancient History Encyclopedia. All rights reserved. © AHE 2013. Please contact us for rights to republication.

Filed under: Behind the Scenes


James Blake Wiener is the Communications Director at Ancient History Encyclopedia. Trained as a historian and researcher, and previously a professor, James is chiefly interested in cross-cultural exchange, world history, and international relations. Aside from his work at AHE, James is an avid Arabist, devotee of romance languages (French, Portuguese, and Spanish), reggaetoñero, and fan of ice hockey.