Wednesday, April 27, 2011

A Virtual Visit to Pompeii

Pompeii and Herculaneum are on the Bay of Naples, below Mt. Vesuvius. Until the eruption of the volcano on 24 August 79 A.D. (we know the precise date because of the writings by Pliny the Younger from his view in Misenum, northwest across the Bay of Naples), the people didn’t even know what a volcano was. Mt. Vesuvius was just the mountain. Then hell literally broke loose.

Pompeii The Exhibit: Life and Death in the Shadow of Vesuvius,” on display at the Discovery Center in Times Square, is a dense and awe-inspiring exhibit. It took me over 2.5 hours to experience it, reading all plaques and captions, examining artifacts. There’s an opening film before entering the exhibit, introducing the presumed life pre-eruption – presumed based on the evidence left by the preservation of the entire city under the volcanic ash of Mt. Vesuvius.

You walk through hallways with statuary, frescoes in marvelous earth tones, some of gardens, some of daily life in the marketplace, mosaics from the floors of Pompeiian houses. Around the corner are display cases filled with coins of different sizes – gold for saving, bronze for using – scales, reminding people that Pompeii was a thriving market port. And quite a few amphorae in the traditional red clay of Pompeii , as well as some very beautiful alabaster jars. Around another corner and there’s a discreet little room emulating a chamber in a brothel – more like a cubicle -- with graffiti and erotic paintings on the wall, and lewd etchings on clay lamps. Then a gladiator’s helmet, shin guards. The exhibit shows articles and elements of everyday life in Pompeii.

The art of Pompeii was very fine, and after gazing up at the varying sides of two white pillars, a digital clock counts down to the next showing of an “immersive” film. You step into a separate room, which is just a big box, like a large elevator car, and it’s dark and rather cold. The film includes light and sound effects and a floor shaking to the speakers to give a not-too-alarming idea of the quaking of the earth under Pompeii. The time lapse photography brings us from a normal morning to the gradual destruction of the homes and shops. You might think you were at the end of the world as you watch a simulation of the stages of destruction culminating in a tsunami-like wave of ash rising over then swallowing Pompeii.

Darkness and a bit of a chill in the air is only slightly relieved when the screen rises and a doorway reveals a body frozen in time by volcanic ash. It’s a white plaster cast – they’re all white plaster casts – filling a dry yet somehow foggy room with body casts as well as 18 skeletons found in a room in Herculaneum. The skeletons get the imagination going well enough, and then the full body casts: men covered in ash on the stairs, a child alone, a child reaching for its mother, a pig, a dog trying desperately to climb above the suffocating ash. The room itself and its contents promote an eerie feeling. It’s all quite affecting, standing amidst such startling representations of the last frantic moments of the people of Pompeii and Herculaneum.

This creepy and remarkable section leads to an excellent archeology lesson, along with vulcanology. No space is wasted, yet there is no clutter either. (The design by Ralph Appelbaum Associates is clear and clever.) The found objects are ordinary – tables, cook pots, jewelry, stoves, dried apricots, an entire carbonized loaf of bread, everything you can think of that was left when a disaster with no warning overcame the people. This is a valuable history lesson of how we live – a comb is a comb in any century, the jewelry found would not look out of place in our time. Life is ordinary until it’s gone -- an event, not a human act, just an event -- can make that life disappear in moments. Despite my immersion in Pompeii and Herculaneum, I cannot help but think of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Those lives ended, buried, changed.

The exhibit brings you as close as it can to being in Pompeii -- computer screens with 360-degree views of the excavated ruins allow you to travel the streets; you can peer down into a diorama of a typical house, then watch a computer generated tour of a Pompeiian house (the sort of tour you can see on real estate sites online) even showing some of the frescoes – of which we’ve seen pieces – complete in place as they would have been.

If you go – and I suggest you do -- wear comfortable shoes and don’t carry much. No one made an issue of my ever-present compact backpack (only big enough to carry my small netbook), but backpacks are not actually allowed. There is a complimentary coat check. The audio recordings (optional, an extra $7 -- nice to have but not necessary as the captions, posters, and timelines are very informative) have two settings, one for adults, one for “family.” In the first half of the exhibit there’s no place to sit down, but after the second film there is a bench in each of the two final halls.

“Pompeii the Exhibit” is fascinating and chock full of artifacts, demonstrations, and information. And of course the website ( has more information on the exhibit, with links to and the exhibit’s excellent blog for still more.

~ Molly Matera, signing off, ready to re-read Lois Hamilton Fuller’s “Fire in the Sky: Story of a Boy of Pompeii” – my childhood introduction to that tragic city.

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