Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Pompeii Live

I saw the video cast from the British Museum of POMPEII LIVE at the Phoenix in East Finchley last night. Very mixed feelings. Lovely to see the artefacts but the presentation was extremely disappointing. The sound was cacophonous, I'm not sure if the Phoenix could have improved this but they didn't! 

On TV Mary Beard & Bettany Hughes come over as strong intelligent women, respecting themselves, their knowledge and the intelligence of their audience. Last night was dumbed down and seriously misjudged. They gushed, they wasted precious live time with silly affectations, they (especially Mary Beard) had seemingly been told to flirt with Peter Snow, it came over badly. As I came out I overhead a member of the audience, saying that the one she liked best was the exhibition curator, 'because he was the only one who talked to the audience as if we were intelligent human beings'. This video cast wasn't being relayed to a football stadium of people who had never been in a museum before - it was to cinemas full of intelligent arts and history aware people who couldn't get exhibition tickets, couldn't travel so far or stand so long. Also to those like me with exhibition tickets, who wanted to know more. I think this was a first for the BM - I hope they'll learn before trying again! 

That said, the artefacts were glorious and we were left wondering how some of them were transported and indeed if such risks should have been taken? I guess the monies raised through the exhibition and the video casts and the associated interest and increase in tourist visits will fund much needed conservation and that therefore risking some items to preserve others is justifiable. They know that (especially in Herculaneum) there are vast un-excavated areas and therefore many more treasures still to be found. There was discussion, especially with a Professor who was busily and fruitfully excavating the sewers (he was the other one who besides the curator was true to himself on camera), about the ethics of further excavation when they are failing to conserve what is already exposed. 

The stuff from the sewers was fascinating. You could imagine the horror of a beautiful young woman as she washed her hands and knocked her precious jewelled gold ring (bigger than the sapphire worn by Princesses Diana & Kate) down the drain, never to be seen again, or at least not for 2000 years. There was a bracelet too and a perfect little statue of a household god, who must have been watching over the toilet until accidentally knocked down it - maybe by one of the earth tremors signalling the unhappiness in the belly of Vesuvius. Kitchen implements, large fragments of pottery and whole cooking pots were obviously thrown or washed away with waste foodstuffs. Faecal remains have enabled the diet of ordinary people to be analysed and found to be extraordinarily varied, including imported as well as local foodstuffs and with something like 50 varieties of fish.

The ordinariness of the lives of the people of Pompeii and Herculaneum (if they hadn't been preserved in ash we'd never have given them a second thought) meant that at several points i found myself thinking back to Grayson Perry's 2012 BM exhibition, at the 'Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman'. The craftsmen and women of Pompeii and Herculaneum were presumably local and remain unknown. Mary Beard & Bettany Hughes were intent on giggling about the lewd and contentious. They showed phallic objects which would have fitted well in the Perry exhibition, but Perry presented that section in a much more satisfyingly matter of fact way. They found a multi phallus with bells on, which Perry's bear, Alan Measles, would have enjoyed. Beard showed murals from the pub or drinking house with cartoons and Latin inscriptions of vociferous arguments prompted by games won or lost. Her ease at reading the Latin inscriptions demonstrated her academic prowess, sadly not evident in much of this 'performance'. Hughes feigned shock and warned sensitive audience members to look away from a statue of Pan (who was himself half goat) copulating with another goat, but when you think about it, Pan didn't have the equipment to copulate with anyone of human build. If he wanted to pleasure himself it had to be with another goat. Would she have reacted in the same way to a similar stature of two goats?

The most fragile objects were those carbonised by the heat of the ash. These included a wooden chest and a babies cot. We found ourselves wondering how on earth these had been stabilised for travel? The chest had contained carbonised clothing; and the cot the remains of its tiny occupant. Bodies in Herculaneum were burned up by the 400 degree heat of the ash with only skeletal remains. Pompeii was hit many hours later at 300 degrees so bodies were cooked and remained encased in ash until they rotted away. Conservationists have poured molten plaster into the cavities and thus produced casts of the bodies. There was a chained up dog, a small child on a couch, an even smaller child on her mothers knee concealed under the supposed safety of the stairs with the rest of her family. Apparently many fled, the fleet and quick thinking got away, the infirm or slow moving died in the surrounding fields where many bodies await excavation. Those who stayed put and hid themselves away, died instantly.

There were beautiful frescoes from the garden room of the house with a gold bracelet. The BM has spread them out so more people can see them simultaneously, I'd have loved the more atmospheric presentation of showing them together as intended and found. I guess all exhibitions involve compromise. I look forward to visiting the exhibition in July and would love to visit Naples, Pompeii & Herculaneum to see the artefacts where they belong and the rest of the excavated sites. I had a plane booked to do so last year but my daughter had an accident so I couldn't go. One day maybe?!?!


  1. oh dear .. no instructions to flirt with Peter Snow.. and didnt think I was. Am a bit old for that, honestly.

    1. No offence meant it was just my reflection and to some extent the reflection of those I went with. But we love you on TV!