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Sunday, April 13, 2008

A Day in Pompeii


Roman soldier at the entrance of the exhibition

A Day in Pompeii
San Diego Natural History Museum
February 15–June 15, 2008

Saturday morning. I take my kids to see “A Day in Pompeii”. I meet a friend and her son there. I wonder if the exhibition is interesting for young children. We are greeted by Roman soldiers in full Roman gear, scary lances, heavy shields; fake mean looks: an excellent beginning!

Then we enter the exhibition, and that is another story. Dim light, beautiful and rare objects in glass cases, maps and texts are the main attraction here.

“Buried - and frozen in time – after the fateful eruption of Mount Vesuvius on August 24, 79 CE, Pompeii lay forgotten until 1748 when archeologists began to excavate the site. Piece by piece they discovered exquisitely preserved objects that offer a glimpse into what the day –to-day life of this ancient city may have been.” (extract of the presentation of the exhibition)

We watch a wonderful, computer generated animation where we can see the beautiful villas emerging from the ruins to recreate their original designs with amazing paintings on the walls and large rooms decorated with graceful objects. We can imagine the very refined life style of the rich Romans at the time. They seem to have spent most of their time receiving friends, eating delicate meals and drinking fine wines, spending time in their gardens or at the public baths, playing ball and chatting around steaming pools…

The objects are beautiful, the jewelry exquisite, like the gold bracelet and earrings from “Oplontis, Villa B”. It is always strange to look at an object in a museum and to think that it belonged to someone one day. It was in a house, on a table, may be in a special box, maybe the person died wearing it.

The audio system is well done, simple to use for the kids. There are numbered explanations for adults and separate numbered explanations for kids. The kids get a simpler talk, and they can hear the Romans talking about the objects the kids see: for example a sales woman on the market place talks about how she weighs the food for the clients. But soon, I cannot help thinking that all the people I actually hear are about to die, because this part of the exhibition describes the life in Pompeii just before the Volcano erupted. I hear children joking and laughing with their parents while looking at the dining room... I imagine the people walking in the garden… And I know what is coming.

With no transition, we enter a darker room. We are in the part where the “famous” bodies are laying down in different position. At first I find it peaceful but then I can see that the people struggled and that is the terrible part of it. They suffered before dying.

“Although only fragmentary skeletal remains were found there, hollow spaces within the hardened volcanic debris revealed the forms of many deceased Romans. Suffocated by volcanic gasses and covered in ash and debris, their bodies eventually decayed inside the hardening matter. This air space essentially formed a mold, since the ash that had surrounded the person retained an imprint of the body. Excavators realized this and filled the air pockets with plaster. The resulting "plaster mummies" poignantly capture the human tragedy of Pompeii.”

Here are some labels I read:

Cast of a man - This man sought shelter in a gymnasium sitting with his back to a wall and knees drawn up.

Cast of a man - This man fell holding a handkerchief or cloth to his mouth.

Cast of a woman – this woman suffocated from fumes and falling ash. She may have vainly tried to keep her nose and mouth clear by pulling her tunic over her face. You can see the imprint of her clothes preserved on her upper back, hips, stomach, and left arm. She was found on the Via Stabiae possibly trying to make her way to the harbor and escape by boat.

Cast of a man and a woman - Found together in a home The man reaches out to the woman, perhaps trying to protect her.

It is the end of the exhibition. The children want to go to see the dinosaurs in the museum before to go. I think they were interested by the exhibition but it is not easy to understand and it is not especially designed for kids. But they saw a lot of unique objects, and they saw the mummies which is a way to have a contact with the very abstract notion of what is death.

Outside the light is blinding and the heat strikes us. I am coming back to the present, the journey was definitely worth it.

1 comment:

Tobermory said...

This is so poetic. Truly lovely. I enjoyed experiencing it all over again.