A Review Of The Pompeii Exhibition At The British Museum

Portrait of the baker and his wife, Pompeii

On Wednesday I took the tube into town and met DH , during his lunch hour, at the British Museum.

The amazing cultural opportunities In London are one of the perks of living ‘next to’  this fantastic city and I have decided to make the most of them now the kids are in full time school. So when DH mentioned  he’d seen the details for the BM’s lastest offering;  Life And Death In Pompeii And Herculaneum, and asked if I wanted to go, I immediately said yes, please.

We’ve not been to Pompeii ( yet), but the story behind the doomed city has always fascinated me, and a visit is definitely on our ‘to do’ list. And apart from a few fanciful historical novels and so-so reviews of the site, I hadn’t really gathered much knowledge about the events surrounding the disaster that befell the two cities. In fact I hadn’t even registered the existence of  the more coastal town, Herculaneum. The people who died here were instantly incinerated by a pyroclastic blast, so all that remains of them are slightly charred skeletons.

So I went into the exhibition largely ignorant and with very little idea of what I would see. The only expectation was that there would be plaster cast impressions of some of the people who died in the eruptions.

And yes, there were some of the famous castings of Pompeii on display. But not as many as I had anticipated, and they showed a lot less detail than I thought they would, although you do gain a vague impression of finer details such as faces and fingers. They are made by pouring casting material into the spaces that once contained bodies, but now lie vacant in the solidified ash. Because of the nature of the casting process, no one was quite sure what the casts would show until they were chipped away.

Some spaces yielded a casting of a single person and some provided evidence of groups and in some cases, families. Personally, I found the most affecting cast to be the one that shows a guard dog writhing in agony as it was overcome by the ash, pumice and heat. Poor dog 🙁

pompeii dog

But this exhibition wasn’t really about the casts or even the eruption, although there was plenty of information about what we know about the sequence of events and how the people affected reacted. It was more an explanation of how people lived in those days, what their houses were like and what sort of possessions they surrounded themselves with.

We saw hundreds of objects that correspond with things that we use every day ourselves; signs, a cradle, chairs, plates and cutlery, food containers, writing equipment and even some food that had been instantly carbonated and so has retained its original shape.  These unfortunate people were not so different to us, despite having lived almost 2000 years ago.

However, there are some real differences in their lifestyles. Mosaics and frescoes displayed in public places often depicted skeletons warning of death, and lovers demonstrating explicit sexual positions. One of the most startling displays was of a beautifully carved statue showing the god Pan copulating with a goat. This piece of art probably held pride of place in someone’s garden. It was thought that this kind of  thing was intended to provide humour rather than arousal, and DH and I certainly enjoyed watching peoples reactions as they approached the case and read the relevant inscription!

We really enjoyed this exhibition and thought it was well worth the £15 per head we paid as non-members, but agreed we were glad we hadn’t bought the kids along. Not all the material was suitable for children and despite the timed entrance, the rooms were terribly cramped and seemed poorly arranged  as far as traffic flow was concerned. There are some ‘family friendly’ bits labelled but by the time you’ve got close enough to check out what’s suitable and what’s not a lot of kids would have spotted the unsuitable exhibits!

Some people had  hired multi media players and wanted to stop and look at everything, and others ( like ourselves) hadn’t. We had limited time and  just wanted to read, look and move on. The average age of the visitor while we were there ( 11am on a week day morning) must have been around 60 years of age, and the writing could have been made a little larger and placed a little higher so you didn’t have to be right in front of the object to be able to read about it. I was asked several times to read what number an object was, so that someone could listen to the right track on their multimedia player, as a lot of people seemed to find the numbers too small.

There is also a ‘Pompeii’ App available for Apple and android for less than a couple of pounds, which gives you a fair amount of background information. I downloaded this after we’d seen the exhibiton and although it doesn’t show all the items, it is helpful for getting your head around the background or events.

It took us around 1 1/4 hours to get around the exhibition, and that’s with fighting our way through the crowds and looking at, and reading about everything. If you were fussier about what you looked at, or the rooms were less crowded, you could probably get around in an hour.

Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum is showing at the British Museum from 28 March – 29 September 2013.  See britishmuseum.org for more information, or to book tickets.

Pompei Carbonised loaf of bread

3 comments on “A Review Of The Pompeii Exhibition At The British Museum

  1. I def recommend a visit to Pompeii and Herculaneum for you at some point. Fascinating places – but P was boiling hot even in Sept so not somewhere to go in height of summer. It’s very big and exposed (prob not great for younger children either!).

    • It’s certainly on the list, maybe it might be okay during Easter?
      We might leave a few more years though.

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