rcReview ~ Pompeii: In the Shadow of the Volcano #ROMPEII

Back in June, I was one of a group of blogging types whom the Royal Ontario Museum graciously allowed to attend the media opening of their Pompeii: In the Shadow of the Volcano exhibition (which, it should be noted, is NOT the same one that was at the British Museum a while back, although it has several of the same artifacts). Even better, they allowed — nay, encouraged — photography of the exhibition, a stark contrast with the Pointe-a-Calliere’s The Greeks: From Agamemnon to Alexander the Great (which I awkwardly live-tweeted without photos as guys in suits eyed my suspiciously).  This was another indication that the Royal Ontario Museum is leading the way when it comes to making good use of social media to promote exhibitions, and I happily Storified my photos from my live tweeting of the media preview. Even so, I’ve held off writing a formal review at the time in anticipation my wife and I celebrating our twenty-fifth anniversary with a Grand tourish sort of thing which would include a number of museums in Italy and, of course, a trip to Pompeii. And so what follows is a review written with ‘the real Pompeii’ and related displays in Europe in mind.

The promotional material for the exhbition includes a sentence which defines the exhibition succinctly:

[…] Displayed in the ROM;s Garfield Weston Exhibition Hall, Pompeii features approximately 200 artifacts that tell the dramatic story of an ancient city captured in time. […]

As with all decent exhibitions (as opposed to the static displays on higher floors), the Pompeii exhibition at the ROM has a narrative and is trying almost to recreate the experience of being in Pompeii before, and in the wake of, that fateful August day. As such, it is useful to early on express our umbrage at two of the earliest reviews of the exhibit from two of Canada’s largest newspapers, neither of which/whom ‘gets it’.  Murray Whyte’s review for the Toronto Star opined, inter alia:

In an era where museums are desperate to reconfigure their relationship with viewers, this show is distinctly short on experience and long on information, and that’s the problem.

It does a sturdy job of unpacking Pompeii’s archeological significance: that its swift burial in the days after the eruption of Vesuvius made it a kind of vacuum-packed time capsule of everyday Roman life in the first century AD, and that its preservation is one of the keys to understanding what that life might have been like. […]

But it travels through an exhaustive, and exhausting, array of subsections, most of them cloyingly titled — “out on the town”; “open for business”; “better homes and villas” — that lard on information both useful and not. (The latter: an Onion-esque panel that assures you, “Romans used tables for the same things as we do.”)

In a similar journalistic passive-aggressive way, the Globe and Mail‘s James Adams concludes his (otherwise positive) review thusly:

In other words, Pompeii: In the Shadow of the Volcano doesn’t lack the goods, be they exotic (a selection of copies of the famous plaster casts of the entombed victims) or everyday (pans, urns, furniture, lamps, coins, spoons). Where it does falter is in the presentation.

This has less to do with the show’s organization as a warren of compartments and departments (with titles such as “Better Homes and Villas” and “Out on the Town”) than its setting. As regular visitors to the ROM’s lower depths know, the Garfield Weston Exhibition Hall can be an unforgiving space. Its vertiginous walls, linoleum-like floors, thrusting supports and angled intrusions are, more often than not, obstacles to be overcome (or at least ameliorated) rather than opportunities to be embraced.

I’m no fan of the Garfield Weston Exhibition Hall at the best of times — it is basically a rabbit warren of a space with barely any right angles and with ceiling heights that drive many an average height person nuts. But what the above reviews don’t seem to get is that using this space is actually part of the narrative and works (I actually was chatting about this very thing with Dr. Jonathan Edmondson of York University, who was among the folks I chanced upon at the exhibition that day). The GWE Hall replicates very well the experience of wandering down the narrow streets of Pompeii itself. One expects things around the next corner, but is never sure what will be there; it actually adds to the experience of the exhibition.

To return to the ‘narrative’ aspect, however, I think the curators at the ROM have outdone themselves (following the aforementioned Storified tweets will help to understand much of the following description). The ‘tour’ begins with the usual quotes being projected on a wall and then there’s what I call the ‘touchy feely’ section. One can touch a bit of pumice from Pompeii, and then one gets one of the most famous pieces … the dog cast:


It’s probably the most famous piece to come out of Pompeii, of course, and if you go to the site of Pompeii itself, you can poke your nose/camera through an iron gate to see another cast of same that looks like this:


Whichever you prefer, the folks around you will generally go ‘awwwww … poor puppy’, especially when they see that he/she was likely tied up at the time of the eruption. I still remember one of my profs in a Class Civ class muttering how people seem to feel more about the puppy than the 1000+ humans who died in the event.  I’d like to think that the curation team at the ROM were well aware of the usual reaction to this piece and put it early on in the journey to  prevent it from hijacking the narrative later on.

Once you ‘go around a corner’, the real narrative begins. We first encounter plenty of statuary of people of various ages and positions; we are putting faces on the people who actually lived in Pompeii. We continue by wandering through various aspects of their lives at the time, with the expected nods to gladiators, theatre, and the like. We see images reflecting the  variety of religions which were current and occupations people worked and slaved at. Then the narrative grows a bit darker, and we’re reminded:


Many of these folks had probably lived through the earthquake a decade and a half before. There were warning signs …

There is more wandering though other things associated with Pompeii, and many which allow for connections outside the show itself. A prime example is the room which has the ‘adult’ material, which includes the famous Satyr and Goat piece:


… which thankfully (for teachers) is in a separate section so if you don’t want to look at such things (or can’t, because of the kiddies), you don’t have to. This is a practical contrast to the British Museum’s attitude to the piece, which probably limited the age of the audience and the usefulness of the exhibition for teachers. If you do go in, however, in addition to the expected brothel frescoes and penis lamps, one can ponder the ithyphallic Priapus and his possible penis disorder that was recently in the news.

Elsewhere, one can make comments on the recent restoration of the famous Cave Canem mosaic.  Torontonians might consider it timely to comment on this peacock fresco after the hijinks earlier in June:


But even without that, there is plenty to marvel at, whether it is the exceptionally fine mosaics (which startled me):


… or frescoes with subject matter which would endure through various painting styles:


… and on and on. I was impressed that the exhibit briefly mentions the controversy over the date of the eruption (did it happen in August?), but I would have liked a bit more on that score than this passing mention:


Whatever the case, one eventually winds through the GWEH rabbit warren and is met by this woman (from Herculaneum, not Pompeii … a reminder that Pompeii was not alone):


Proceeding down a short alley,  we are dragged back to realize the human toll, with another famous cast:


… which is definitely more dramatic than what you’d see at Pompeii itself:


… and suddenly you’re in a room with just casts. And it’s dead silent as the impact sets in on the audience, especially this piece, which includes some of the ‘new technique’ 3d casts which were in the news just as the exhibition opened:


… and this one, which looks an awful lot like a family just lounging in the backyard on a Canadian summer day:


And so the narrative ends and the human toll is definitely recognized and stressed.  I could contrast and editorialize about the (to me) bizarre casts display currently in a pyramid in the Pompeii amphitheatre, but that’s another story. Pompeii: In the Shadow of the Volcano is a stunning exhibition and certainly rivals going to Pompeii itself, which has had to deal with strikes and accessibility issues lately (I doubt they can do anything about the 40+ degree heat we had to deal with). It’s easily the best exhibition I’ve seen in a long time, possibly ever,  and I’d strongly recommend that all Classics types in range of Toronto make a serious effort to see it before it departs for Montreal in January. School teachers can also make ancient Rome very real for their students (skip the one section, obviously) with this exhibition and a trip upstairs to the ROM’s generally excellent ancient Greek, Roman, and Egypt collections as well. Definitely worth it!!!

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