Outside the British Museum’s long-awaited “Pompeii Exhibition” I ran into a family beating a hasty exit, their crying five or six-year-old in tow. On the surface there isn’t anything particularly remarkable about this: museums are noisy and bustling, exhibitions often akin to a game of cultural sardines with strangers. For some reason, however, this image struck a chord: there was something poignant about encountering so much distress immediately before exploring the last preserved moments of an entire civilisation.
The opening tableau, set aside from the main exhibition, has already been analysed in detail – Fiorelli’s cast of a guard dog beside a charred table from Herculaneum, two drinking lovers immortalised in fresco between. The scene is set with sensitivity, the visitors invited as audience to an abandoned stage set – ‘all the men and women merely players.’ Heads nodded knowledgeably and one studious visitor correctly announced the fresco’s provenance, avoiding the caption to one side. It struck me that the cast of the guard dog, contorted in obvious agony, was precisely at the eye-level of a child.
The exhibition certainly benefits from the limited space offered by the Reading Room. Crowded it might be, but in these sprawling villas of the first century AD public affairs were inextricably bound up with private life. Domestic space was adapted to accommodate the needs of a wealthy patron and his constant flow of clients. The atrium was the space in which this relationship was most exploited; here, the head of the household would give audience from his sella curulis (bronze folding-stool) surrounded by large chests boasting the family’s wealth.
On a critical note, the (perhaps necessary) decision of the curators not to scatter the most sexually explicit material throughout is rather at odds with their striving for realism. These pieces are set aside (in an alcove to the right of Boscoreale’s spectacular Garden room fresco, for those interested) with a clear warning about the nature of the content.
The public of the eighteenth century were incensed that one ancient had boldly displayed the violation of a nanny goat by the god Pan in the centre of his garden. In the twenty-first century the marble has been hushed into a corner. In contemporary Pompeii these ‘indecent’ images were everywhere, penises were painted on walls and carved into roads. Mary Beard offers the explanation that they are timeless emblems of masculine power but outside their historical context they are faintly comical.
In the past few months we have been bombarded with media about Pompeii and its environs. For the interested there have been documentaries from Andrew Wallace-Hadrill and Margaret Mountford, among others. For the conscientious there is also Mary Beard’s 2009 ‘Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town’ (recently available in a snazzy Folio Society edition). The public has been coached and coaxed into searching for the golden artefact – party pieces like the Garden room frescos familiarised as website banners, bags and smartphone covers. What’s more, the layout of the main exhibition is perfect for an ex-AHA student, Classicist, intrepid tourist: designed to transport those familiar with the streets of Pompeii or Herculaneum back to the shells of the houses they will have passed on their travels.
I, on the other hand, am more interested in what it does for the uninitiated – someone who has never been to Pompeii; a mathematician; a child. The Guardian’s review acknowledges just how far the ancient Pompeians ‘are such an intimate mirror of ourselves’. What this exhibition does, and successfully, is to remove that mirror and set the public (sometimes uncomfortably) face-to-face with their ancient counterparts. Essentially, you don’t need to have consumed every gobbit from the experts – perhaps Pompeii is best experienced through a child’s eyes? We have an enormous amount of literature analysing a site which has not been a sealed archaeological deposit for two millennia, and so to walk around and wonder what it is that intrigues and overwhelms the most inquisitive of minds is not another act of scholarship but one of artistic expression.
Go and sit in front of the front door of the reconstructed atrium and listen to the muffled soundtrack of footfall, carriages and commerce, viewing the milling tourists not as a barrier between you and the captions but as Pompeians of the twenty-first century. Don’t simply recognise Herculaneum’s carbonised cradle from a poster in the newspaper but imagine the child it once held, perhaps one immortalised in the plaster effigies of the last labyrinthine hall.
Never has the public had the chance to get so close to these artefacts; Fiorelli’s casts are mere inches away and frescos have been purposefully freed from cases. There is plenty here to excite and disturb every age, but it is the synthesis of these elements which gives the exhibition much of its tremendous impact.
Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum runs until 29 September 2013 – book now!