Ancient Romans? Folks just like us

Jane Masséglia on “Life and Death: Pompeii and Herculaneum”, the British Museum, London, until 29 September


Garden room, fresco from the Villa Arianna, Boscoreale. Photograph: Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei

British Museum curator Paul Roberts and his team have constructed a lively and accessible exhibition which leads the visitor through a model Roman house, before its sudden destruction by Vesuvius’s eruption of AD79.

The “Life” of the exhibition title is primarily domestic. Aside from for a series of objects illuminating the role of women in the public life, the opening space, given over to commercial life, feels brief and lacks atmosphere. By contrast, the main exhibition, presented in the form of a generic Roman house, which visitors explore room by room, is highly effective. Objects are displayed according to room (atrium, cubiculum, hortus, living rooms and culina) to exemplify Roman attitudes and domestic habits. The combination of artefacts from both cities allows a greater range of objects: the superheated ash which fell on Herculaneum carbonised wood, including furniture that will be unfamiliar to even site-seasoned visitors. Indeed, several items of furniture on display have never before been seen on display outside Italy.

Sculpture, mosaics, frescoes, and jewellery appear alongside utilitarian objects such as cookware, storage vessels and coins. Throughout, the exhibition stresses the Roman love of status-display, conspicuous locations and expensive materials, while the room-galleries variously stress differences from and similarities to modern domestic life. A sensible discussion of particularly Roman attitudes to sex accompany the racy images in the cubiculum, while the culina gallery, with its carbonised foodstuffs, food moulds and recognisable cake-tins, evokes a familiar Mediterranean country kitchen, albeit one with a dormouse-fattening jar.

The final gallery, “Death of the Cities”, forms a striking contrast to the vibrant room-galleries, presenting several casts of body-shaped voids found at the sites, including The Resin Lady, The Muleteer and an affecting family group. Those who have experienced the zoo-like display of these figures at Pompeii, behind rusted bars and before photo-snapping crowds, may be surprised to find these all within touching distance, and will appreciate their sensitive presentation.

The exhibition is aimed squarely at the layman. Labelling is minimal, and artefacts used to evoke social habits, rather than illuminate style-periods or techniques. Details of precise findspot or date are omitted, with visitors being prompted instead to identify objects by comparison with modern equivalents. “We didn’t want to break the spell,” explains Vanessa Baldwin, the exhibition project curator, “by giving long labels which make the objects seem like museum pieces. We wanted as few words as possible, for people to see a pan and know what it was, and not have to read what it was.” While this approach was a methodological choice, it has practical disadvantages: since the objects' labels are so small and low on the walls, only those with very keen sight or in the front rank of onlookers are likely to be able to read them.

The generic-house concept also necessarily involves some sleight-of-hand. It is not obvious, for example, that the houses from which the objects come vary enormously in location and status. The extraordinary Pan and Goat statue is used to represent the Romans’ attitude to erotic imagery in domestic contexts. While it is interesting to ask generally why any Roman might include a such a statue his garden, in this particular case it might more interesting to ask why the owner of the Villa of the Papyri, an enormous seaside pile with extensive philosophical library, chose to display it, and against all expectations, placed it alongside busts depicting philosophical worthies and Hellenistic kings.

There are also occasions where attempts to make Roman life seem familiar are misleading. The introductory video, cross-cut with scenes of modern Neapolitan life, suggests that house slaves might be thought akin to modern domestic help and “part of the family”. Although this is somewhat clarified in the object labels of the main exhibition (notably in the cubiculum display which notes the sexual function of slaves), the initial suggestion that the inhabitants of Pompeii and Herculaneum were simply ancient versions of ourselves belies some very radical differences between the personal and domestic habits of a society with resident slaves, and our own.

And while the gallery concept is excellent, it is not without problems. The house-shaped space contains several bottlenecks and switchbacks, meaning that some visitors may struggle to reach busy corners. Although only a few weeks old, some of the wooden boards, painted to resemble plaster panels are already showing signs of wear and tear, and under the harsh lighting of the “exterior” street scene, the white panels (which pass for stone under the more sympathetic lighting of the house), look shockingly scruffy and half-finished.

Such criticisms aside, the exhibition is thoughtfully constructed, and accessible to a wide range of visitors. It is accompanied by a series of events, including gallery talks and workshops. Pride of place among these is “Pompeii Live”, to be broadcast in British cinemas, first to the general public and then school children, with experts being interviewed in real time, over the course of a virtual tour of the exhibition. These events and the waiting list for tickets attest to a current surge in interest among the British public in Pompeii and, in light of current investigations into the financial dealings of those formerly responsible for Pompeii’s restoration, are a timely reminder of what is at stake for the European Commission’s “Great Pompeii Project”.

Jane Masséglia is the Lecturer in Classical Archaeology at St. John's College, Oxford

Published Wed, 08 May 2013 03:24:00 GMT

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