I read a lot of reviews before I took this Mrs up to London to see the British Museum exhibition; most of the reviews were by classicists and most said “I enjoyed it, but..”.I went to both Pompeii and Herculaneum during a gloriously influential (and emotional) period of my life and during a slightly different “regime” of conservation (Gods help me – I’m talking about 20 years ago) and I went back to the Naples museum about 5 years ago. I knew what I expected from the exhibition…
I want to tell you I was wrong, that the other reviewers were wrong – but I can’t.
I grant you there were pieces exhibited that I hadn’t seen and I thought that the mix of related items from different places beside each other had some merits. The Wife was delighted just to see the variety of objects, to get up close enough to investigate the details and intricacies and to capture a feel for the time and place but I found it frustrating.
I was expecting it to be crowded and had anticipated the difficulty getting to the cabinets [a common problem in the Reading Room exhibitions – and distinctly easier this time when we weren’t trying to get a wheelchair around (annoyingly few exhibitions address that PoV)] – I had even allowed extra time to compensate for this.
What I found most jarring was the “tone” of the presentation of the objects – it seemed that the curators hadn’t quite decided whether to offer them as familiar or alien. The slight squeamishness about sex and death was out of place and despite frequent references to them I didn’t really get a sense of the wider family network or indeed of the town as whole. I wasn’t sure how much we were supposed to be trying to glimpse “daily life” vs contemplating our own fragile mortality and the possibility of everything to become an artefact through circumstance. If we were looking at living there should have been a little more focus on activity and diversity and if we were acknowledging our own morbid curiosity in the mundane perhaps a little more opportunity for intepretation would have been helpful.
If I am honest and ruthless with myself I suspect that my feelings about the exhibition stem from over-thinking and being too bookish in my personal tastes. The exhibition as a whole was also guilty of my personal pet hate- a failure to suggest places to go and look for more information or alternative viewpoints. Its not uncommon in museums especially when they are short of space but as an academic I find it infuriating. I want references and arguments as well as a sense that I need to do some of the interpreting for myself. I often think its the kind of value-added extra that catalogues and hand-held guides should be offering. I want to be challenged by a display, to see things in a new light and that is hard to achieve. Its especially tricky when its related to my ‘specialist’ subject and the curators have so many expectations to meet.
However, before I start sounding too negative I want to encourage you to go..
The concept of a exhibition dedicated to the domestic space was always worthwhile and (although almost cliché in terms of fashionable academia) in dire need of applying to objects not already sorted into that category by a provincial label – for example, exhibitions about Roman Britain often have more of a daily-life feel but galleries often focus on ‘big’ works of art. The sense of how items could be placed next to each other and ‘read’ together was also an interesting concept but perhaps impossible to do without a full household space to use (although imagined how crowded that would feel and how dark!). Pompeii & Herculaneum really do offer a unique chance to see a pair of communities at a particular time – a chance to see objects and situations normally erased and that chance shouldn’t be missed.
Furthermore the light and attention lavished on the objects remind you that there aren’t many times you will get to see anything like this so clearly and so close to home. Special exhibitions at the BM aren’t cheap (but they aren’t ridiculous) and travelling to and around London isn’t cheap but it is cheaper than a holiday to Italy.
Go.. it is beautiful and its disturbing. Its fascinating and infuriating. Go and make your own mind up.
[Other Reviews Here, here, here, here and here]
After the hour and some wandering around we went to a special event linked to the exhibition (one of many) – in this case a lecture on the benefits of reading poetry in its original Latin. A bit of a cheeky refresher for me and a new look at half-familiar poetry for the mrs. Its difficult for me to judge how good it was as a public lecture for the same reason its hard as a semi-pro to examine the overall impact of the exhibition that is because this was material I covered at GCSE/A-level it was familiar and unexciting on a personal level. I also always cringe inwardly at every blunt attempt to “prove” the worth of classics- like somehow the fact that we are debating it betrays our insecurity and uncertainty about the role we play and gets in the way of showing our worth (which is a whole other post) But. I can say that I liked the roundtable multi-speaker format and it was smoothly done. Furthermore, I thought the ideas that were the underlying point of the lecture – that the language of the poetry helps us see the inherent beauty of the piece, raises deeper linguistic and cultural questions and that it reminds about the differences between our readings and earlier ones (and indeed talks to us about the process of translation- an idea less considered in the lecture) -were important and worth making. Engaging with Latin can be hard to do but it is worthwhile and it is interesting! From that point of view the lecture was worthwhile and productive – I think I can convince the wife to learn a bit more latin and re-learn my rather rusty skills at the same time.
All round Good Day then.