Pompeii the Exhibit: Life and Death in the Shadow of Vesuvius

Special exhibition at Discovery Times Square through September 5.

The famous maxim has it that tragedy plus time equals comedy, but comedy isn’t the only yield of that equation. You also get a ghoulish sort of wonder. Sure, if you choose to imagine what it might have been like in the Roman city of Pompeii when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 CE—if you truly contemplate the violent tremors and the widespread fires and the blackened sky—the event becomes almost unbearably grim. But why do that? With a few steps and more than nineteen centuries back, it’s not grim so much as fascinating: a thriving city preserved like a mosquito in amber. It’s incredible.

So I admit I half resented Discovery Times Square’s exhibit on Pompeii for rattling my sense of distance. I was happiest marveling at the artifacts of daily Roman life and reading over the scientific descriptions of the volcano eruption, but the exhibit seemed determined to strip me of my intellectualized stance. The famous plaster casts of the volcano’s victims are heartbreakingly detailed up close. You can see the faces contorted in fear, the hands grasping for loved ones, and in a dark room, with an eerie white noise filling your ears, the humanity of those victims and the horror they endured feels uncomfortably present. The effect is powerful—and appropriate, I suppose—but nonetheless, I missed my academic aloofness.