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The Pompeii exhibition – another disappointing day out in London

In the cramped British Museum, the exhbition told us little about the Roman city

By on Thursday, 5 September 2013

The Romans come to Britain again (AP Photo)

The Romans come to Britain again (AP Photo)

I have just been to see the Pompeii exhibition at the British Museum. Yes, I know it has been going on for months now, but I thought I would catch it in the last few weeks of the run in order to avoid the crowds.

This hope was dashed as, though it was easy enough to get a timed ticket on the day I turned up, the exhibitions space inside the rotunda was crowded to the point of extreme discomfort. So that is the first gripe I have. Surely, somewhere in London, there much be a possible exhibition space that is quite simply more spacious? Dark, cramped and airless, the usual exhibition space at the BM is hardly worthy of a great capital city. The Italians have a Palazzo delle Esposizioni in Rome, which has ten thousand square metres of floor space, according to its website; the French have the Grand Palais  and the Petit Palais in Paris; we have got the Royal Academy (our best of a poor bunch), the morgue-like chambers under the National Gallery, and the disused tube station that is the BM’s offering. With all the new buildings going up in London, couldn’t we find room for a light, airy, big multi-purpose exhibition hall?

But to move on to the exhibition itself, which is entitled “Life and Death: Pompeii and Herculaneum”. Congratulations to the curators in gathering together what must be one of the finest collections of exhibits from the two cities. For here indeed they all are, all the famous pieces from the museums in Campania, which have been endlessly reproduced, and which are so familiar from every Latin textbook: the dog mosaic, the skeleton mosaic, the plaster cast of the man who resembles Rodin’s Thinker, the guard dog curled up in agony, the fresco known as ‘La Primavera’, and the fresco of Terentius Neo and his wife. Good to see also Caecilius’s warts and all bronze portrait – he is the lead character in the Cambridge Latin Course. Less familiar are the carbonised remains from Herculaneum, such as the foodstuffs and the precious Roman furniture, of which we have so very little. Interestingly, there was nothing about baths or gladiators, both of which tend to be of great interest to children.

The exhibition essentially recreated a Roman townhouse, and gave us a tour of triclinium, garden, bedroom and kitchen; as such it concentrated on the familiar and did not tell us anything much that we did not know already. But there were one or two hints before we entered the townhouse that there was more to Pompeii and Herculaneum than that. For example, the marked mini amphora of fish sauce, a product that has been found all over the Roman world, eloquent of trade and eating habits. Then there was the statue of Eumachia, which hints at the high status of some women at least in the Roman world; there were also the citizen lists and the property marker that suggest that a very high proportion of the population consisted of ex-slaves. These exhibits pointed to themes that the exhibition simply didn’t delve into.

I myself have two burning questions that any encounter with Pompeii and Herculaneum always raises.

First of all, the artwork, and in particular those frescoes and mosaics. Were these the work of talented artists? Or were they in fact painted by slaves working from templates that were used all over the Roman Empire? Are these mass produced, analogous to our modern wallpaper, or are we looking at artwork that somehow marks out the Campanian towns as epicentres of creativity? I think it must be the first, but so often it feels like the second.

The next question concerns those lares and penates, the household gods, those miniature statues and shrines that graced every house; these were perhaps much more important than the temples and other buildings associated with the public and state cults. What was the attitude of these people to their gods? There are plenty of painting of Bacchus, and plenty of paintings of mythological figures. In what sense did these people believe in Bacchus? Was Roman religion by the time of the eruptions moribund? And what exactly do we mean by Roman religion anyway?

This exhibition did not answer my questions. What a pity!

  • Benedict Carter

    Can physical objects answer these questions?

  • Laurence

    I was in Pompeii last Spring. Undoubtedly, our post-Christian culture has a lot in common with the pre-Christian citizens of Pompeii. One suspects they believed in the very convenient Bacchus as wholeheartedly as we do now, so help me Zeus.

  • Anna Karsten

    Sorry you didn’t enjoy it – my year 8 pupils loved it and were enthusing about it in their lessons. It really brought to life what they have been studying. The exhibition was never meant to be about gladiators and bathing but the houses of Pompeii and Herculaneum and their occupants. I have always considered an exhibition to be a starting point to independent enquiry into questions that arise. It seems to me you have a number of avenues to pursue!

  • James M

    “Was Roman religion by the time of the eruptions moribund?”

    ## It was vigorous enough in the late 300s to need suppressing by force as well as by a stream of legislation. Which suggests it was not exactly on its deathbed 300 years before.

  • Kaph

    Just to let you know, The BM is, in fact, currently building a ‘light, airy, big multi-purpose exhibition hall’ which will open early next year and replace the Reading Room as the main exhibition space. So that is good.

  • Mr Grumpy

    The way to beat the crowds is to be there for the final hour before closing time (may not be a helpful tip for Pompeii as all pre-booked tickets are sold out). Mrs G and I turned up at 7:15 last night, and two hours later we were able to enjoy having whole rooms to ourselves.

    As to whether the artwork was produced by talented artists, surely much of it speaks for itself? E.g. the piece I most wanted to take home, the hauntingly lifelike little mosaic portrait of a young woman.

    So even the captions, frequently dumb (do we really need to be told that Homer was a Greek poet?), PC (no opportunity lost of dwelling on the high status enjoyed by some women) or both, didn’t spoil it for me. All this on top of Mass at the Oratory – a perfect day out!