I was excited about this exhibition as soon as I heard that it was happening this year. Continuing the excitement, I threw myself in to it fully, going to Pompeii Live (a live cinema screening from the exhibition with experts showing the audience around, explaining their favourite objects. Mary Beard was involved, and she’s always brilliant) a few weeks back, and getting the audio tour to enhance the exhibition itself (which took me a good three hours to get round). There was some overlap with the audio tour and Pompeii Live but it was definitely worth it. Pompeii Live gave me a good sense of the thoughts behind the creation of the exhibition, and the overall argument, which made me even more eager to visit, as well as giving me certain objects to look out for while I was there.
On entering the exhibition you are met with the upsetting image of a cast of a dog that died in Pompeii. This is a sobering start. You then come to a room with a short introductory video playing. I’m not sure what I thought of this really. It’s quite unusual, and seemed a little pointless, but I suppose it served the purpose of focusing your mind on what you were about to see.
The rest of the exhibition was absolutely brilliant. Set out as a house, you move through the street area to the atrium, bedroom, garden, living room, and finally the kitchen. The atrium, with its pretend water, and the garden area were both quite serene rooms. The layout emphasized the focus on life in Pompeii and Herculaneum, rather than just on the tragic end that the inhabitants met. I was struck by just how advanced the Romans were (not a new discovery, but one that really hit me as I explored the exhibition), and also how similar life was, that no matter how many years have passed humans still have the same concerns, and the same kinds of interests and pastimes. This made the haunting image of the empty, carbonized cot, and the casts at the end all the more moving.
There were some truly remarkable objects on display, and I was struck by how well preserved many of them were, and how varied the artwork was. It made me wonder at the inevitably eclectic mix of objects that would come out of a city today, and ponder the difficulties of choosing which objects to include in an exhibition like this. One of my favourite pieces in the exhibition was a mosaic portrait of a woman, an incredibly impressive, intricate piece of art. There were also some pieces that have not been seen together since AD79, which is just so special.
A fantastic, well thought out exhibition, I can’t recommend this highly enough. This is not an exhibition about the eruption of Vesuvius so much as it is about the lives of the people that inhabited Pompeii and Herculaneum; their interests, their clothes, their food, entertainments, and worries, looking beyond the tragic end that made these cities famous to the people whose lives were destroyed.
Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum is on until 29th September at the British Museum. Most of the advanced tickets have sold, but if you get there early you might be lucky enough to get a day ticket.