Having done no pre-visit research at all, I really thought I was going to the Museum of Science to learn about volcanology and archaeological scientific methods – maybe even some forensics – when I chose to take my wife to see “A Day in Pompeii” – a temporary exhibition in Boston, one of its only four destinations on its US tour.
Once inside the exhibit, we were delighted to find richly colored fresco murals, marble and bronze statues of Venus and other patron gods, plates, bowls, and jugs. We were amazed to find fully intact tables and chairs upon which ancient Romans reclined and dined. We found exquisite jewelry and crude pottery. There were charred peach pits and loaves of bread… and… way in the back: I think I saw dead people.
The organization of the exhibit was not obvious at first, but that quickly cleared. The first arrangement of objects featured discoveries from common households and gardens, and the last display featured objects from across the entire “city town” – from trade businesses, boats, community gathering places, public forums, and burial sites. The middle of the exhibit featured the famous body casts that suspend the horror of the Vesuvius eruption of AD 79 that destroyed (and preserved!) Pompeii under 12 or so feet of ash.
Large, illustrated wall graphics created “chapters” in the exhibit whose themes organized the collections and helped the reader envision a living Pompeii: A Typical House, Medicine, Preparing Food, The Public Square, etc.
The remainder of graphics were small object captions. The writing style was interrogative, encouraging the reader to look for details in each of the objects. We were invited to look for the hidden lizard in the fresco, notice the inscription on a piece of jewelry – a gift from a master to his slave, and compare the curvaceous shapes of vessels that once contained different foodstuffs.
It was possible to view every item and read every word in the course of a two hour visit, which indeed we did.
Two animated video theaters offered a glimpse into the daily life of Pompeians and what the eruption of Mount Vesuvius may have looked like. The theaterettes offered an informative place to rest and seemed to be popular with kids and families (what kid doesn’t want to witness a whole town get burned and buried by a volcano?!)
The body casts were located in a secluded gallery, appreciable in the round, and complemented by a respectful soundtrack. This presentation fostered reverence in visitors.
I’m mostly critical of the exhibition’s entrance and exit experiences. The serpentine queue line at the front of the gallery held 60-100 people until our entry time. We were held in a rectangular foyer where an introductory video was projected on the narrow-end wall. In this orientation, the video couldn’t be viewed by people in the back of the line and so they chose to entertain themselves through conversation and cellphone use. Perhaps the wider wall would have been a better choice for the video?
I suspect that packaging and promoting this material for science museums has compelled its producers to add scientific content and hands-on elements to the exhibition – at the end. The last gallery takes a look at the Ring of Fire and a history of volcanic eruptions around the globe, a timeline of the excavation of Pompeii, and some “interactive” playthings for busy hands. It really doesn’t fit the character or the mindset of the heart of the exhibition. To me, the conclusion was artificial, it was loud, and it was cheap. The scientific ideas that I was curious about: how the body cavities were found and how the casts were made, how an entire city was discovered and uncovered, and how historians know what they know, were not addressed in any detail.
I really appreciated that the color scheme was unobtrusively dark and that the plinths and pedestals were non-decorative. The warm colors and organic shapes of the objects burst forth. Typographic treatments were equally benign. I was relieved to see no sign of the Herculaneum typeface and no simulated fresco textures. “Classy” I thought. Lighting was both mood-setting and set at the right levels for reading.
I didn’t love that the cast bodies were displayed on beds of lava rock that resembled the chunks I put in the bottom of my Weber grill, but now I’m just getting picky.
If you are able to see this exhibition, it’s an amazing peek beneath the ancient ash. I highly commend it for its authenticity and engaging interpretation.
The exhibit requires an additional fee and a timed entry ticket. It is in Boston through February 12. Just google it to learn more about its touring circuit.