The Great Court of the British Museum, with th...
The Great Court of the British Museum, with the tessellated roof designed by Foster and Partners

From those of my associates who have been to Pompeii, the main report seems to be one of heat. I kid you not. Apparently the blistering heat of the sun (even as late in the year as October) is enough to rob you of empathy and interest. The story that will forever be linked with Pompeii is a familiar one to most of us (Herculaneum and Stabiae are less well remembered). There are numerous documentaries, with more and more imaginative computer generated footage, of what we think it must have been like when Vesuvius unleashed a pyroclastic hell on the 24th August AD79.*

Although first discovered back in 1599, the fascination for Pompeii only really took hold from the 18th century onward. Since that date there has been much attention on the site to conserve and explore all that lays beneath the two metres plus of ash which still harbours traces of prior life. (A third of the north half of Herculaneum still remains unexplored). More recently there have been many exhibitions but all of these have been centred around the eruption of Vesuvius. In more recent years, volcanologists have grappled with theories of pyroclastic surges, and archaeologists have spent much time trying to protect and conserve the many beautiful frescoes within the three main sites already mentioned. But what fascinates people most seems to be the death of the inhabitants, not least because of the body casts which have become an abstract yet emotive death throe. There is something of the Edvard Munch about it but much, much worse.

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Munch, The Scream (1893, National Gallery, Oslo, Norway)

The ongoing exhibition at the British Museum in London, deals not with the death of the inhabitants of Pompeii and Herculaneum, but with their lives. The life of both towns and their people, prior to the moment of eruption which simultaneously erased and preserved their existence for us nearly two thousand years on. The exhibition is in the centre of the British Museum, you enter the circular space of the Reading Room where the walls have been painted dark and the sense of gloom is apparent, almost anticipatory. You are quickly drawn up the stairs to be greeted by what proved to be one of the more gripping exhibits, The Dog. The Dog still has his collar on and there is a moment of stomach flipping as one imagines his barks becoming more and more anxious whilst he remains tied, unable to escape. Why did his owner not release him? Did they tie him up for safety, or was his owner elsewhere when panic became hysteria? When death drew ever closer?

The exhibition moves swiftly on to a film with some rather shoddy looking graphics, reminiscent of a corporate misadventure with power point. But the structure of the exhibition from this point onwards is in the design of a typical shop / house, with the focus of the entire layout of the exhibition being to mirror the architectural space as it permits us to explore the daily life of Pompeii and Herculaneum, through experiencing a physical structure of homes and the wares of those who lived within these sites.

As Brian Sewell writes, we must ‘share the archaeologist’s glee in identifying the purposes of rooms’ which equally sets out the approach of the curator. Indeed we must, particularly if we are to enjoy this exhibition. Ignoring the rather ill centred soundscapes which were introduced in the next ‘room’ (I use this term lightly, as I felt I was in more of a corridor with an unpainted, unfinished air to it) one is able to explore the varying rooms from the shop/pub typical of the front of the building to the bedroom, kitchen and garden beyond. What is absent in the exhibition is the brothel, although there is plenty to make any seven year old boy smirk. The rooms begin to weary one as you pass from bedroom to kitchen, focusing on each and every detail. Again, I concur with Sewell with his sense of tedium in the deference paid to each ‘knick and knack’.

Whilst the premise of each room provided a clarity to the exhibition, it also began to become the reason for disconnection. What difference did it make that these items came from Pompeii or Herculaneum? Other than their unique preservation the exhibition soon drifted into a series of pottery (I exaggerate but that is how it felt after two hours and not just to my seven year old). Was this not just a presentation of Roman trinkets? Should I have considered my motivations, for attending the exhibition, more fully prior to arriving? Seeing a carbonized chair seemed somehow dull and perverse all at once. Perhaps this says more about me than it does the exhibition. However, I again concur with Sewell that the reviving qualities of the frescoes were what saved the exhibition. As I was really fading and mentally working out just how many more ‘rooms’ could be curatorially factored in, I came to the garden rooms. I stopped and looked again, convinced for a moment that the images before me were perhaps illustrative (similar to the mock pool which a security guard fought fruitlessly to keep clear of children – not mine I may add). Note to curators, don’t create a big hole with shiny lights in it and then be surprised when children want to climb in it.

The garden frescoes of floating Medusa like heads and beautiful lyrical botanical designs were exquisite. The birds, the foliage, the grapes, the people all beautiful and richly, vibrantly coloured. How was this possible? How were these beautiful colours still in existence all these years on, after all their trauma? Sewell berates these works as lacking ‘grasp of anatomy’ and attacking their ‘crude ineptitude’. Maybe these Sewellian words are apt (please do not let us make this word common currency!) but their grace and simplicity reminded me of Dora Carrington’s now lost wall paintings. The colours and details were an offering, not one intended for us in the 21st century but for those citizens who sat before them in AD79.

Whilst I felt privileged to witness the interior of people’s lives and homes, my staid British sense of privacy began to unravel. The concept of privacy and how it has changed (how many of us have slaves who stand by as we cavort in the bedroom) forced me to consider the sense of boundary between historical interest, preservation, education and morality of both their culture and mine. My culture is heavily bound within Christianity, whilst life at Pompeii remained entirely free from its influence. The exhibition finale, if you will, also made me consider these wider issues mainly because of the body casts, those figures who certainly beguile visitors with their expiration of life (I wonder what Damian Hirst would think of these contorted forms?) Sewell bestows upon the body casts a pathos, which I suggest they intrinsically have but feel the exhibition failed to present. I was in fact surprised that my son barely seemed to register their open mouthed death rattles preferring instead the surprisingly small sculpture of Pan ‘fighting’ (never mumble “I’m not sure that’s what he’s doing” within range of a child’s hearing or you may have to do some swift manoeuvring to avoid the terrifying prospect of explaining exactly what the comic God figure is doing to the goat. Yes, I did say goat).

In the final moments of the exhibition, having by this time tired of seeing the ‘knick and knack’ of life (I exclude Pan and the Goat from that statement), one stumbles upon some jewellery encased within a tall presentation cabinet shielding one of the final exhibits; a family of contorted victims. The jewellery was beautiful, bright, shining, and aesthetically astounding and yet as soon as one moved to the other side of this cabinet one was greeted by a plea of grey, cold agony. A twisted, contorted family in their death throes. An infant alone in its moment of death, a toddler, less pliable, held by its mother as it shrieks in death. All this an uncomfortable glimpse of what really took place that day in AD79. Their pathos was lost somehow though, perhaps because of their postscript display. Nonetheless, I now have to consider the body casts may well have been one of the main reasons which drew us all to the Reading Room that warm day.

Roberto Rive (18?-1889), "# 493. A dead d...
A Dead Dog, from Pompeii

The exhibition is on until September 2013, see here.

* I should probably mention there has been a recent debate about the actual date of the eruption, despite the accepted testimony of Pliny the Younger who was not only an eye witness but wrote down a detailed account of the different stages of the eruption. (Pliny’s testimony has resulted in his name being used to describe pyroclastic surges as Plinian). Braziers (for heat) were discovered under the ash, which has surprised many for if the eruption took place in high August why would these have been used?