Sunday, 7 April 2013

Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum (British Museum Exhibition)

Last week I travelled to London to visit the much anticipated 'Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum' exhibition at the British Museum.  Many of you messaged me, looking to know how it was, and whether or not it is worth trekking to London to see.  I figured that, over the course of three posts, I'd write a little bit about my visit and what I learnt from it.  This first post is a review of the exhibition as a whole - its content, its arrangement, and how it is to actually walk around.  It is followed by a post featuring some of my exhibition 'highlights' - needless to say this will have a culinary bent to it.  The final post will be review of the companion book, also called 'Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum' - a worthy souvenir for all who visit the museum, and great alternative for those who can't.

The Essentials

  • Dates: 28th April - 29th September 2013
  • Price: £15 (Adults & Oldies), £12.50 (Students, Unemployed, Disabled, & Groups), Free (Members and U16s)
  • Online Ticket Booking - This is essential
  • No Photography :(

The Exhibition

I have been to Pompeii, Herculaneum, and the National Archaeological Museum in Naples twice, and can still safely say that this is the greatest collection of Roman artefacts I have ever seen - the museum in Naples must be awfully empty whilst this exhibition is on!

Photo: Soperintendenza Speciale per i beni Archelogici di Napoli e Pompei

'Life and Death' is a showcase of the domestic, something reflected in the very layout of the exhibition itself; everything is arranged according to the plans of a well-to-do Roman house.  You start off flanked by the shops commonly found at the front of Pompeiian houses, process into the atrium where the family showcased their wealth and pedigree, and are then free to wander into the more private bedroom, garden, and dining areas.  The exhibition ends with you fleeing this house, as the Pompeiians did in 79 A.D.  Pretty soon you start to find the money they dropped and the lamps they struggled to light, before catching up with them, or rather their plaster casts, at the exhibition's exit.

Photo: Soperintendenza Speciale per i beni
 Archelogici di Napoli e Pompei

The hundreds of items on show have been perfectly chosen, breathing life into the various rooms you wander through -  here is the beautifully crafted stool a Roman matrona sat on, and there is the elegant silver mirror she used when brushing her hair.  So many of these items are familiar to us today - toothpicks, razor blades, dice, perfume, spoons - which is why you can't help but feel a sense of attachment to the people who used them, and which is why the sight of their tortured forms at the exhibition's end is so heartbreaking.

Photo: © Trustees of the British Museum

The Experience

The exhibition is undoubtedly a masterpiece - it brings the Roman world to life in a way which can be hard to do.  Unfortunately, my experience was far from perfect.  Despite the use of ticket-booking and time-slots, the exhibition was over-filled; even half the number of people would have been far too many.  My girlfriend and I were jostled from one artefact to the next, pushed around by tour-groups full of people who didn't want to be there, often unable to see items or read about them.  At times this exhibition felt more like a bad queue than an exploration of the Roman house.

However, whilst my experience was far from ideal, I still stand by all that I said above - this really is the best collection of Roman artefacts I have ever seen.  And, when the disgruntled and uninterested tourist with the big hair and two backpacks finally moves to the side, that glimpse of a silver spoon from Herculaneum really does make it all worth it.

Some Spoons
Photo: © Trustees of the British Museum

My advice for all who want to visit 'Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum' is to go, but to do so in the middle of the week at the start of the day when things are that little bit more quiet.  For those who can't make it, the exhibition book, also titled "Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum", is a stunning alternative.

Some Other Reviews

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