Saturday, April 05, 2008


A week ago I visited the Pompei exhibit at the HMFA. I promised Kerri I'd let her know what I thought, so I took a few notes while I was there, and I've let it settle for a while, so here's what I thought.

First, I probably would have enjoyed the experience a lot more if it had been less crowded, so Kerri, if you can go during the week, maybe a morning, and avoid any sort of school field trip, you might like it a lot more than I did. They also had free audio tour headsets, but I didn't want one, so I don't really know what I missed with that, but I'm kind of grumpy that I would need one. And it made me grumpy how people would talk to each other (somewhat loudly) about what they were hearing in their headsets. I guess I would have just liked a little more quiet to contemplate in.

So, what's in the exhibit? I mean, a chronicle of the explosion would seem more fitting for the HMNS, really, so why the art museum? Well, the feature pieces are the wall frescos, the statues, the amphorae and urns and jewelry. Not the people who were caught, or the architecture buried under the rubble, but the precious and beautiful possessions the wealthy returned to recover. Of these I was most caught by the rings that held polished precious stones carved with tiny pictures of hens and chicks, gods and godesses, and other tiny icons. They were lovely, intricate, meticulously and delicately carved.

Most of the labels and descriptions were well done. There would be a portion describing the piece itself, possibly where it was found or with whom, and then another paragraph describing the significans or prevalence of that form of art or object in general. Those paragraphs were somewhat redundantly scattered across the exhibit, but if you didn't read and retain it at one piece, I guess it needs to be with all of the applicable pieces. I just would have like a little more detail, but I guess that's what the headsets were for.

One inscription in particular was noticably poor. I mean, bracelets that were very obviously snakes were quite particularly labeled "realistic snake bracelet in gold" and huge gold necklaces from which a tiny crescent pendant dangled were inscribed with care to make sure you noticed the crescent. But one small object, about a half an inch long, was only labeled, "Silver pendant."

Well, it was a silver pendant of male genetalia. I would have liked to know what the significance might have been, or with what sort of person it had been found, but no cultural or anthropological insight here. I suppose it was too embarassing.

It seemed a strange sort of prudishness, though, in light of what I found most disturbing about the exhibit. In each room, as a sort of center piece drawing more people than the objets d'art, were single or grouped casted bodies. Most were the older plaster casts, one was a newer resin cast, showing both shape and, through the translucent medium, bone structure.

I suppose there was a gritty realism in the way they sprawled on the floor, trapped in death and clear protective walls like insects in amber. And I've seen mummies and such in museums. But this in some ways sickened me. On entry there's a sculpted replica of a group of skeletons huddled and slumped in death, as found, along the quay of a port where they tried to shelter and escape. It was powerful and moving, but it wasn't real. It was a re-creation. The casts, those are real. All that is left of people that died in terror and hopelessness. Covering their faces with veils. Children cringing into the sides of their parents. A child, laid down beside his family, tiny face almost like life, like sleep, full lips and the trembling shell-like eyelids that, even in plaster, seemed like they could blink and slowly, sleepily open. I stood by that child and wept.

It's different from mummies, from burial relics. No one but death closed these eyes. No friend or mourning loved-one arranged these limbs for the last sleep. These people are held in the moments of their greatest horror, fears, supplications, dispair, all fixed forever. No funeral, no parting, just the unceremonious, unfeeling dump of natural disaster. And now here they are on display. The false skeletons at the front are cast in false soil, with images around and behind them, giving them some semblance of archeological significance. They are placed in a setting of ruin and the slow decay of time, and partially unearthed by the artist in the same way they would have been gently uncovered by the scientist. But the bodies in the exhibit halls lie on the floor, against the deep red paint and carpet that so effectively sets off the gold and gems of their goods. One cast reveals a man crouched against a wall with his hands covering his face, the grief of catastrophic loss and the knowledge of inescapable death in every line. And something in me rebelled. No one should be looking at that, under brilliant lights and flamboyant paint, wearing our polo shirts and torn jeans and our informative little head sets. There was a twisted figure of a dog that the inscription said had tried to escape by climbing on top of his dog house. Now body wrapped around agony and mouth open, it lies on a slightly raised platform surrounded by bronze statues and golden jewelry, and the man beside me looked at it and laughed.

There were things I enjoyed about the exhibit. I did like that many of the objects were described in terms of the places and people they were recovered near. Goods from a goldsmith's shop. Lamps held up against the gathering midday gloom. Treasures of the rich and treasures of the workers. Small statuettes of the god Mercury in silver, intended to protect travelers. Places named by the finds within, like Alley of the Skeletons or House of the Gold Bracelet. The powerful reminder that we will be identified by those who come after us not by the people we are so much as the things we owned, because this will be the only thing that remains of who we are. And the things these people left behind paint a rich and fascinating picture.

Not only adopted Greek gods are given artistic significance. Egyptian gods and goddeses cover small shrines and cups. A lamp is carved with a face bearing features of deeper Africa. A picture of a people both sophisticated and cosmopolitan, yet still identifiably Roman emerges. Powerful women, who owned land in their own right and influenced the politics of their world. Gladiators once slaves fighting for the entertainment of the rich, but with such skill and bravery that they have been freed and given a place in the world that they were once only a spectacle for. Paintings from a tavern wall showing seduction, gambling, comeradery, conflict, and the publican evicting his rowdier clients. Doesn't sound very different from today's bars.

It was in some ways a fascinating, informative, and moving exhibit. It was in other ways lurid and, in my opinion, degrading. I watched the film on the way out, however, that described the destruction of Pompei as a moral for "careful, respectful use of the land." It was the last impression I took away from an exhibit I was already not sure I liked. The idea that by farming in rich volcanic soil, these people brought down this destruction upon themselves is untenable and gratuitously neo-eco-evangelistic without even being apt. I left the exhibit frustrated and angry.

My verdict on Pompei? It was okay, but it could have been so much more.

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