Tuesday, 23 March 2010

A Day in Pompeii

A Day in Pompeii is an exhibition showing at Te Papa until 25 April 2010. It chronicles the events of 24-25 August 79AD, when Pompeii and neighbouring town Herculaneum were destroyed and buried by a massive eruption from nearby volcano, Mount Vesuvius in Italy. It is an impressive exhibition.

In 2002, I spent a month backpacking around Italy. I remember sitting on the train from Rome heading to Naples and attempting a disjointed conversation with a young Napolitani man sitting opposite me, he in broken English and me in very limited Italian. As we neared Napoli, he seemed keen on pointing out some passing landmarks, many of which I couldn't comprehend, but some I recognised. We started passing a mountain, and his commentary, accompanied by my increasingly confused facial expressions, went something like this: "montagna (mountain) ... Vesuvio (Vesuvius) ... boom!!" The elaborate arm gestures made this one clear: we were passing Mount Vesuvius.

Pompeii was definitely on my list of places to visit while staying in Napoli, and I spent about half a day walking through the reconstructed and excavated streets of a town that existed nearly 2000 years ago. There were the usual town attractions: the forum, central meeting places, stately villas with grandiose names like House of the Faun etc. However, reality struck as I walked up towards the back of the town and went into the homes of the villagers, saw their bedrooms, kitchens, bathrooms ... these were everyday people who lived just as we would have in those days, and not just some distant historical figures we read about in school.

Pompeii bakery
With trees and greenery growing in the streets and homes, it's almost like walking through any vacant town. For some reason, the town bakery also captured my attention, or perhaps it was the terrified expressions on the faces of the two plaster casts on display of people caught and buried alive in the lava. Again, these were real people and this was an incredibly moving experience. I later saw some of the original artifacts and frescos which were removed from Pompeii and are now on display at the National Archaeological Museum of Naples.

A Day in Pompeii attempts to recreate life at the height of the Roman Empire before the fateful events of that day. Everyday life wasn't too far different from parts of society today, with people eating takeaways, painting graffiti on walls and buildings, going to shops and bars, and even indulging in illegal gambling. The exhibition features interactive displays and 360 degree virtual tours of a typical house, the town itself, and various artifacts from the time. There was an area with several plaster casts of bodies in the positions they were found; this is haunting to experience. As we sat down to watch the short 3D video giving an impression of the effect of the eruption over 24 hours, I had to laugh as I heard a student behind me exclaime, "it's better than Avatar!"

If you're going to be in Wellington before 25 April, it's well worth checking out A Day in Pompeii.


Genki said...

You've been to Pompeii! Brilliant. While I'm unlikely to be in Wellington any time soon, Pompeii is definitely on my "must see" list. Thanks for the reminder1

donna said...

this sounds like fun! Wish I could go! Unfortunately, I'm too far away!!! :(