The exhibition is arranged as a Roman house – you start in the street outside and then enter the atrium, bedroom, garden, living room, and kitchen, before the final section dealing with the eruption. I can’t quite make up my mind about this ‘house’ layout: it works well in, e.g., the recreation of a frescoed garden room, and it’s nice to see an attempt to give objects a bit more context than they’d normally get in museum cases, but it did feel a bit like just an excuse for the set designers to have fun building an impluvium. That doesn’t, however, detract from the wonderfulness of many of the objects. Of course, pretty much all the most well-known items were there (Dog mosaic? Check. Terentius Neo and wife? Check. Carbonised bread? Check. Bust of Caecilius? Check, though the fact that it was actually a Herm was a bit of a shock to CLC fans) but there was also plenty of less familiar stuff: carbonised furniture (including pieces of a wonderful decorated bed), a piece of wooden ceiling, window panes, chamber pots, a writing tablet (belonging to Caecilius). Plus, of course, garum jars, jewellery, more carbonised food, statues, fresco fragments, silver dinner services, a dormouse-fattening jar, and plenty more. It’s an amazing selection, and I’d definitely recommend it to everyone just on that basis – the chance to see all of these things together in one place is not to be missed. (Also, a small thing, but a definite bonus point: they actually mentioned the debate over the date of the eruption, which was pretty unexpected!)
As you’ve probably guessed, though, there are several ‘buts’ to follow. First of all, the exhibition’s stated aim (from the press release) is ‘[to] give visitors a taste of the daily life of the people of Pompeii and Herculaneum’ – but ‘daily life’ apparently means essentially ‘what their houses were like’, and despite the ‘street’ section, with a few statues and inscriptions, there’s almost nothing by way of broader context to this – even though exhibits like the election graffiti, for instance, could easily have been used to talk about politics and civic government. Religion was another area that was almost entirely absent, apart from the odd household shrine. Plus, of course, as this excellent review points out, ‘daily life’ here is basically the life of rich people. Obviously this is hardly a problem unique to this exhibition – and credit where it’s due, there were some much less high-spec items on display: some pretty crummy figurines from household shrines, for instance. But there wasn’t much about how poorer people actually lived (nothing about insulae, so far as any of us saw). Something we talked about a lot afterwards was the problem of using individuals as illustrations of a whole society – not just using a few Pompeians to stand for all of Pompeii, but also using Pompeii and Herculaneum to talk about the whole of Roman society. It’s inherent in any exhibition that it has to use a few objects to tell a much wider story, but it might have been nice to see at least the occasional acknowledgement of the complications involved in using just these two towns at one point in time to illustrate the whole of ‘Roman life’.
The second ‘but’ is more to do with the concept of the exhibition as a whole: its overall message is very much that the Romans were ‘just like us’, people with whom the average visitor can connect and empathise. In principle, this is a great way of getting people interested in and engaging with the ancient world. The problem is, once you’ve established those similarities, you’ve got to address the differences, because they’re what’s most interesting and important – and that’s what this exhibition almost completely failed to do. Without that second step, the message felt terribly reductionist and simplistic: Look, the Romans had cradles for their babies! They had gardens with fountains! They may have liked lamps with giant phalluses, but that’s not ‘pornography’ really, so don’t worry!
What really let the exhibition down in this respect was its treatment of slavery and the position of women. Talking about these would have been a perfect way to highlight the essential differences between us and the Romans and reflect on their society and our own, and it’s a real disappointment that instead the BM chose to go with an almost completely unproblematised ‘they were just like us’ narrative. The picture of slavery was a very rosy one: slaves are part of the familia, they get freed, become citizens, set up businesses, and inherit their master’s property. All true, for some slaves; but I wonder what happened to the other side of the story. The parts dealing with women were perhaps even worse. It seemed like there literally couldn’t be a reference to a woman – even on the label for the baby’s cradle! – without stressing how (to quote the exhibition leaflet) ‘women were visible and influential in society and at home’. Obviously Eumachia gets mentioned a lot in this context, without any apparent sense that she might be the tiniest bit unusual; the portrait of Terentius Neo and his wife also gets held up as an exemplar, since ‘their pose and presentation suggests they are equal partners, in business and in life’. Well, ok, perhaps they do, but may I just point out: we don’t even know her name. This wonderfully egalitarian couple will be ‘Terentius Neo and his wife’ forever.
In the final section, after a timeline of events and a case containing items found with some of the victims’ bodies, there are three sets of casts of victims: a woman from Oplontis, cast in resin; the seated man from Pompeii; and a family group, parents with their two children. Obviously you can’t talk about Pompeii and Herculaneum without talking about the human tragedy behind the preservation of all these wonderful things, and seeing the victims of the eruption brings it home in a way that no object or text panel can that these were real people – but that’s the problem: effectively, you’re watching real people’s death agonies, and displaying them spot-lit on a plinth just seems uncomfortably ghoulish. I’m not really sure what the alternative is – realistically, there was no way the casts were going to be left out, and indeed there are some pretty good arguments for including them. I just can’t think of a way of doing so that doesn’t still leave me feeling very uncomfortable about the whole thing.
I’ve got to confess I’m at something of a loss when it comes to summing up this exhibition. I should repeat again what a fantastic opportunity it is to see all this stuff – even when a lot of it is so familiar to us as classicists, it’s a completely different experience seeing it in person (if you don’t believe me, go there and look at the portrait of Terentius Neo and his wife. Considering how over-exposed we all are to that picture, I was amazed at how genuinely affecting seeing the real thing was). But the more I think about the exhibition as a whole, the less sense I have of what it was actually about and what, in the end, it was really doing. But then, maybe I’m not being fair to it – maybe classicists are just too familiar with the subject to judge this on its merits as an exhibition which, let’s face it, is not actually aimed at us. So I’m just going to have to end by asking what you think, readers – whether you loved it, hated it, or had similarly mixed feelings, tell us in the comments!