The British Museum’s Pompeii and Herculaneum exhibition opened to considerable fanfare at the end of March. A number of prime-time TV documentaries heralded its coming and the Mayor of London, no doubt enchanted with the subject he studied at university, waxed lyrical at the press opening. Neil MacGregor, Pontifex Maximus of the cultural establishment, had mounted a highly successful campaign to promote the exhibition as the must-see of the season, challenging the Royal Academy’s exhibition of Manets. In this regard, it is already a huge success: it was packed out during my viewing on the second day.
Does it match up to the hype? Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum is a fantastic collection of every day household items from the First Century AD, some of which have never been out of Italy and certainly have never been so well presented. Reflecting the domestic nature of the artefacts, the exhibition is arranged like a Roman atrium house. The child’s carbonised cot sits the bedroom; the astonishingly well-preserved frescos of the atrium and the pots, pans and paraphernalia of the kitchen are all in the correct rooms. The curators’ aim was to ‘provide the most moving and immediate reminder that these were living breathing people.’ The banality of many of the items does ‘bring these people closer’ but I am not sure that comments like ‘that colander looks just like ours’ should be considered worthy objectives.
The Romans were different to us in so many ways and this is demonstrated by their pornographic garden displays and endless erotica including a bust of a surprisingly tender encounter between a satyr and a goat that has long been hidden from public view. Ours is not a culture that readily incorporates phalluses into an unending array of everyday objects: including lamps, wind-chimes, bells and door-knockers, instead restricting ourselves to school textbooks and public toilets. Graffiti is, as is well-known, an area where we can only take inspiration from Romans’ obscenity. Whether the abundant phallic imagery is simply evidence of an overtly eroticised society, or whether it is a proxy for good luck or fertility, this exhibition hints that the people of 79AD were more different to us than curators have attempted to present them in this exhibition.
At the end of the exhibition, a number of body casts are on display and they are a reminder of the extraordinary manner in which death came upon these two towns. Arms thrown up in the pugilistic stance as the inhabitants were buried in boiling ash and asphyxiated. The same ash that buried them, solidified, and preserved the empty space where their bodies rotted. These cavities were filled with plaster in the early twentieth century and the spaces left behind by these ordinary people were turned into casts, as they are now displayed. The serenity of the clean white plaster is betrayed by their agony-wracked postures, showing the price to be paid for such well-preserved artefacts.
This is a fascinating exhibition, although the British Museum has fallen prey to a perception amongst curators that many visitors are scared off by too many blocks of words. Keeping the text small and labels minimal means that when the exhibition is busy, which is a given, visitors rather have to struggle for information.
Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum will run until 29th September 2013. Advance booking is essential.