Vesuvius erupted on Aug. 24, in 79 A.D., the day after the citizens of Pompeii would have celebrated the festival of Vulcanalia, making crafts by candlelight to honor the god of tools, smithing, fire and the forge. The fiery eruption of lava and volcanic stone continued all day and night through Aug. 25, covering Pompeii and the surrounding towns in a relentless rain of ash. In the neighboring settlements of Herculaneum, Terzigno, Moregine and Oplontis and the city of Pompeii itself, those who were unable to escape seem to have met death one of two ways ‘- hot and fast, seared in an instant, scarcely conscious that the end had come, or slow and excruciating beyond comprehension, with each breath harder to take than the last. The eruption leveled all signs of life.
The younger Pliny’s letters are a rarity ‘- an eyewitness account of a disaster that is understood in the modern world largely through a desperate, if deliberate and methodical, groping. Archaeologists, adventurers, scholars and scavengers have all studied Pompeii and the other towns burned up and buried at the foot of Vesuvius. These places were forgotten for nearly 2,000 years then rediscovered by accident in the 18th century. After more than 200 years of continuous excavation, still only a fraction of the story is fully understood ‘– and the digging for meaning is bound to continue for centuries.
“Pompeii: Tales from an Eruption” opened on Sunday, Oct. 14, at the Birmingham Museum of Art and will remain on display through Jan. 27, 2008. Only three U.S. cities will host the exhibition: It comes to Birmingham after a four-month stint at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago and before a three-month display at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts scheduled for 2008. Comprised of 500 works of art and relics, the exhibit is the largest collection of artifacts from Pompeii to ever leave Italy.
Terry Beckham, staff exhibition designer for the BMA, spent three years planning and designing the exhibition. “A show of this magnitude required that much time,” Beckham says. “Another real challenge was the scale. Because the collection includes so many big things, we had to carefully consider how we would get them into the space as we were considering how to situate them in the space.
“The collection also includes so many small things, so it was critical that those not be overshadowed,” he continues. Beckham traveled to Chicago to see how the artifacts were displayed there, but he knew early on that his venue presented just as many challenges as the material did. “Since the Field is a natural history museum, their designer approached it really differently. I’m approaching this as an art exhibit. A part of that is making everything more precious. Everything is an art object, even if it is a spoon.”
Ultimately, Beckham’s approach would be to transform the museum’s Asian art galleries into a 10,000-square foot showcase for classical Roman artifacts. Japanese folding wood cases were hidden by thin veneer, to create small arcades along the gallery walls. The massive Buddhist temple doors that stood at the center of the Asian galleries were cocooned by high, false walls, creating display space for Roman artifacts. The layout of the exhibit shows off the architectural and engineering flexibility of the museum. Part of a wall was knocked out to create a doorway between two galleries. (The wall yielded history of its own ‘- Beckham examined a cutaway piece of the drywall and counted 128 layers of paint, each one representing a different exhibit that the gallery had housed during the past 20 years.)
Artifacts from the different geographical areas represented ‘- Herculaneum, Oplontis and Pompeii Ð’- are displayed in continuous galleries, but visitors take a distinct path through the exhibit. The design elements guide visitors around the room, but it’s difficult to double-back. The different areas are denoted in the galleries by changes in color. After sectioning off the three geographic areas, Beckham penciled in the large objects first and then began to slowly fill in the areas around them. The process was part of an attempt to guarantee a grand view of each object, whether from a distance or up close.
“The Romans are all about vistas and sight lines,” Beckham says. “I don’t want to call attention to the floor or to the ceiling or the walls, but only to the artifacts. There are hints of classical architecture but we were not trying to overpower the real thing.” In fact, it’s difficult to imagine any aspect of the exhibit design that could overpower one of the first displays in the Herculaneum area, where visitors enter the exhibit.
At Herculaneum, hundreds of people awaiting rescue by sea, crowded into the shelter beneath the boathouses. At the Birmingham Museum of Art, one such boathouse has been recreated and human remains are piled willy-nilly inside it, just as they were found on site. Mouths are open ‘- the skeletons suggesting screams of anguish. Adult bodies crowd around children, evidencing attempts of parents to shelter them.
The bodies in this boathouse are not the only human remains on display in the exhibit. There are casts of bodies huddled together, splayed and bent in the tortured postures of humans being surrounded by structures being leveled by pyroclastic surges.
Elsewhere is a man on a stairway, his body in exaggerated collapse; there’s a woman sprawled on her stomach, her face buried in the crook of her arm; a youth who was found crouching beneath a set of stairs; an adult woman and a teenage girl, presumably mother and daughter, who were found clasped together, the younger girl’s head plunged into the mother’s abdomen, suggesting that to the last instants of her life, there was the belief the parent could protect her child and comfort her, even as the world burned up and turned black around them.
Robin Meador-Woodruff, special curator of “Tales from an Eruption,” notes that these images make the exhibit difficult to take in but that their impact also increases its meaningfulness. The archaeological findings at Pompeii are unparalleled in terms of what people have learned from them.
“This is troubling material because of the way people here died,” she says. “But the tragedy of these people is archaeology’s good fortune. Because these ancient Roman cities’ sudden destruction preserved the remains and possessions of inhabitants, the sites yielded extraordinary architecture, art and organic and human remains.”
Besides the body casts, the exhibit includes rings, necklaces, bracelets, coins, surgeon’s tools, strong boxes, gladiator’s armor, table silver, furniture, frescoes as big as rooms, life-size sculptures of ancient gods. Some of the items tell us what these people held precious ‘- they are the things people grabbed when the sky was falling and they were forced to make choices of what to carry with them.
“The intent of this show, in part, is to show the material by context,” Meador-Woodruff says. “Everything from the Vesuvian region is catalogued by who it belonged to.”
Likewise, the exhibit has artifacts grouped on display by the people the items were found close to. A physician’s kit was found near one body ‘- the doctor was carrying surgical tools that closely resemble many medical instruments still in use today. An assortment of coins believed to have belonged to one collector are displayed together, not far from a strong box with a locking mechanism.
Meador-Woodruff finds the coins particularly fascinating. The collection includes silver coins that date as far back as 230 years before the eruption and gold coins that appear to have been minted within 30 years of the eruption.
“These are not coins of significant value as money but objects to which he had clearly bonded,” Meador-Woodruff says.
As a set, the coin collection represents the largest dollar amount of money found in the area. A panel alongside the display explains the denominations of the coins and includes what the amount of money would have bought.
“It’s an exchange rate of a very particular moment,” Meador-Woodruff says. “I think it’s something that people will really relate to.”
Keys are another commonplace item that have had an emotional impact on people who have seen the exhibit.
“The keys tend to stop people,” Meador-Woodruff says. “The fact that people were taking keys with them is touching and heart-wrenching. You have to wonder, did they think they would return home? Was it a symbol of homes they could never return to?
“In any disaster, you might grasp for the reassurance that things might be OK, you might grasp for the ordinary,” she continues. “Think about how much we interact with our keys now ‘- how much time you spend looking for your keys, using your keys, just with your keys in your hand. These keys make a direct connection from the lives of the people who died there to our lives now.”
According to Meador-Woodruff, focusing on these everyday materials ‘- drinking vessels, hairpins, keys and coins Ð’– allows the viewer to think of the exhibit, in part, as a commentary on the way people had possessions in antiquity. What’s on display also causes the viewer to question why contemporary society is obsessed with quantity rather than quality.
“One of the principles in putting together this show that we thought people would relate to is that these people had 15 minutes to get out of town and this is what they took. What would you take?” Meador-Woodruff says. “What would you save?”
“Pompeii: Tales from an Eruption” marks a notable departure for the Birmingham Museum of Art as a foray into archaeological presentation. Of course, there are numerous examples of art among the artifacts Ð’– fine jewelry, Greek-influenced sculpture and numerous paintings. All scholarly classification of Roman painting is based on works of art found at Pompeii and Herculaneum, and three of the four “styles” of Roman painting are represented by frescoes on display at the museum.
But as arresting as the sculpture and frescoes are, the greatest power of “Pompeii: Tales from an Eruption” lies not in the representational art but in the ghastly, gorgeous art comprised of human bodies. These are people turned to artifacts, the stories of their lives summed up in the things they carried and the things they cast aside.
“There’s not a real tradition of the study of classical art in Birmingham, even with all the neoclassical art that’s a part of the regional culture,” Meador-Woodruff says. “Still, this show has the potential to be tremendously relevant, particularly when you can extrapolate forward its connection to the present, its meaning to our lives today.”