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.

I’d like to blame the subtle but pervasive touchy-feeliness of the exhibit on the venue, which bills itself as “more than a museum” (a slogan I distrust because I like museums), but to be honest, Discovery Times Square, a relatively new venue owned by the same company as the Discovery Channel, acquits itself quite with “Pompeii the Exhibit,” however banal that name might be. The exhibit devotes a great deal of space to introducing visitors to the living Pompeii, a diverse Roman city that, when Vesuvius erupted, was still recovering from an earthquake some seventeen years prior but prospering nonetheless. The artifacts on display are dazzlingly well preserved, particularly the colorful frescoes (that’s the advantage of being buried in ash for centuries), and the exhibit’s literature does an admirable job of contextualizing them, pointing to the influence of the Greeks, the Etruscans, the Romans, and the nearby mountainous tribes.

But the heart of the exhibit is, of course, the collection of casts of Vesuvius’s victims. Corpses buried in the solidified ash decomposed over time, leaving behind voids in the volcano-born stone, and a nineteenth-century archaeologist seized upon the idea of injecting plaster into those voids and then chipping off the ashy rock to reveal the ghostly “bodies” inside. The resulting statues are surprisingly affecting. The detail is too vague to make out strong identifying features, but it is revealing enough to suggest fear and panic and pain. Moreover, the gestures of the bodies are disturbingly expressive: couples clutch each other; a woman reaches in vain toward a cowering child; a chained dog contorts its thin body, unable to escape; a man tries to crawl up a staircase while holding his robe over his nose and mouth—probably a futile attempt to keep from suffocating on the poisonous gases pouring down from the volcano.

After that, everything else seems sort of hollow. The exhibit’s final third explains the history of the excavation of Pompeii and neighboring Herculaneum, as well as the science of contemporary volcano study and monitoring—and under normal circumstances, I’m sure I’d love that—but I just couldn’t get those doomed people and animals out of my mind’s eye, couldn’t stop thinking about the exhibit’s wordless, time-stamped depiction of Pompeii’s final hours: tremors in the early morning, than a full-blown earthquake, fires, the sky black and red, surges of lethal heat, waves of poisonous gas, ash everywhere.

I completely lost my “tragedy plus time” perspective. (And in retrospect, visiting an exhibit on the horrors wrought by plate tectonics immediately after reading exhaustively on the earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan mere hours earlier … yeah, that might have been a mistake.) But I suppose there’s something to be said for taking a step forward at times. Poetically enough, Giuseppe Fiorelli—the archaeologist whose innovative casts of the victims of Pompeii make the tragedy so distressingly human—was also instrumental in bringing order and academic rigor to the excavation of the city, ensuring that the site and its contents would be preserved even as they were uncovered—a vital, intellectualized approach to archaeology. The elegance of that is beautiful: Fiorelli helped us find both a studied, erudite way and an emotional, empathetic way to conceive of Pompeii. And as difficult as it is to walk both paths, doing so brings us closer to understanding what happened.