25 June 2013

Pompeii and Herculaneum at the British Museum

My lack of updates and blog posts recently has been due to moving and renovating a new home. Now everything is more or less in place, I finally found time last week to pay my first visit to the blockbuster British Museum exhibition Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum. It's a must-see for anyone interested in Italy, history and the Romans. If you are likely to visit the Naples area in the future, this is a valuable introduction, and if you don't have plans to visit, you might change your mind after seeing the show.

Visitors to the exhibition find themselves touring a Roman home. The visiting route begins with a 'Roman street', and leads through areas dedicated to the different spaces within a typical Roman home, from courtyard garden to kitchen  (where you'd find the privy). Finds from the two towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum are mixed together and range from famous frescoes to humble figs, carbonised in a lasting record of the Roman diet. Among the most memorable displays is a frescoed 'room' decorated with garden scenes, which would have brought the outdoors into an elegant Pompeiian villa.

Exhibits range from a haunting carbonised wooden cradle to a tavern sign (the Phoenix). One of the most scandalous sculptures from the Naples museum's 'Secret Chamber' of pornography is included: an eye-popping group of Pan and a goat which would probably have been an unremarkable garden ornament to Roman eyes. Another fascinating exhibit is a dormouse jar, designed with a run for keeping this culinary delicacy healthy while being fattened. (Dormice are still illicitly reared for eating in parts of southern Italy).

There are many good reasons to see the exhibition, and one important one is simply the chance to see the objects. Although many belong to the archaeological museum in Naples, its fabulous collection, like Italy's other museums, is not always accessible, well-presented or open and visitable. (One of the problems, of course, is that exhibits are sent away to shows such as this one). This is a chance to see a great cross-section of important finds, displayed together with a presentation that brings them to life. On a larger scale it is a great way to learn more about the Roman way of life, and everyday existence two thousand years ago.

The main drawback, as usual with big shows, is that the exhibition is busy and crowded (book ahead), with queues to look in glass cases and read small information signs. Many of the boards contain quite basic information, so if you have read up on the history in advance, you can skim through these and focus on the exhibits themselves. You will also benefit immeasurably from reading a good book before you go (such as Mary Beard's book on Pompeii), which will provide additional context for what you'll see. Even a little  background knowledge will really help to bring the exhibits alive and vice versa.

If you're interested enough to visit more than once, it is worth considering membership of the British Museum which offers free entry without booking, a nice members' cafe/lounge and supports the museum's work. The exhibition runs until 29th September 2013.

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Crater of Vesuvius