Pompeii Exhibit Brings City to Life Then Death


It is hard to imagine 2,000 years ago a cultured and vibrant Roman city rich in architecture, elaborate infrastructures, and exquisite art, that was home to 25,000 inhabitants and regularly visited by others. Pompeii was a rich agricultural center, an important Roman seaport, and a booming resort that had outdoor theatres, more than 300 restaurants or bars (with back rooms for the celebrities of the day), and luxurious homes and bath houses. Pompeii: The Exhibition at the California Science Center in Los Angeles, brings the vibrant city to life then inevitably to destruction and death.

The exhibit offers an interesting look at how advanced life in Pompeii was. It is amazing how much of the modernizations they enjoyed were then lost to man for a long time. They even had running water and sewage back then! Visitors at the museum exhibit get more of a sense of the lifestyle than in visiting the actual ruins in Pompeii. Before its destruction, Pompeii was a pretty modern town, with rich varied diets, active social lives, and lively entertainment. The wealthier homes had amazing frescoes and servants, who were actually paid wages. Near Naples and South of Rome, the area was a bustling resort where people from elsewhere went to vacation.

One interesting point in the exhibit is that prior to the eruption of Vesuvius, the Latin language had no word for volcano and the people of Pompeii did not know they lived by one. There were frequent earthquakes, like one that damaged a lot of the city in 62 A.D., but, then again, there were earthquakes all over Italy. They took that big one in stride and rebuilt over the next decade and a half.

The exhibit is set up to walk you through artifacts from Pompeii homes, demonstrate what daily life with like for the citizens, and then progress to entertainments like the public baths and swimming pools. The exhibit includes details about how the public baths were a major social gathering place with massages, cold-water pools, and elaborate heated ones. There is a bathtub on display, which only the very rich had in their homes. There is information on the forum, which had been the town square and housed government offices and markets. There is also gladiator armor on display in the exhibit.

The exhibit also includes numerous artifacts that demonstrate the knowledge and equipment of the citizens. Among the tools they used to rebuild were a level, a compass, and other tools in the exhibit that- except for a little rust- look like their modern-day counterparts. There were weights and measures and cookware nearly identical to ours. The jewelry worn looks somewhat modern. The medical equipment on display includes a scalpel and a vaginal speculum.

Silver plates, a spoon and a cup from a wealthier residence in Pompeii.

In one section of the exhibit that showed the home life, there were cooking tools, like a frying pan, a square cake pan, a small grill, a soup ladle and other implements. In another section they showed typical dining tables and arrangements. The exhibit had glassware preserved from that period as well as silverware and plates.

Another entertainment the town was known for was prostitution, and the exhibit offers an Erotica Bypass for those who want to avoid the brothel exhibit, which contained some items portraying sex act, but not nearly as elaborate as the real brothel sites in Pompeii.

Then, the Pompeii exhibit brings you into a closed room that makes the disaster more shocking having just learned so much about life in the city. The eruption room offers a CGI experience of what transpired on August 24, 79 A.D. from initial violent earthquakes at 1 p.m. to debris raining down at 3 pm. to 6 a.m. the next morning when Mt. Vesuvius spewed massive rocks and dust that overwhelmed anything in the area still alive and covered the town, the river, and the seaport. The virtual volcanic experience is a real eye-opener and will leave a lasting impression.

After the simulation, you enter a gallery filled with 3-D resin replicas of actual full-body casts of men, women and children in the agony of their final moments that day; the original casts remain in Italy. With the intense heat of that day, and the debris, people were buried and incinerated, leaving behind almost a type of mold that the casts were made from. They show clothing, expressions, and a sense of the monumental disaster.

A gladiator’s helmet and shin guards found in Pompeii.

The Pompeii exhibition was first shown earlier this year at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. There were some adaptations made for L.A., including information on how the Getty Conservation Institute is helping to save the deteriorating frescoes and other artifacts in Herculaneum- a smaller city also buried alive that day. Another California addition was the gladiator artifacts, such as helmets and shin guards.

Pompeii: The Exhibition, which truly brings the city to life before conveying its quick death, will remain at the California Science Center through January 4, 2015. Advance tickets are recommended, particularly for weekends and holiday periods. After L.A., the exhibit is schedule to appear at the Pacific Science Center in Seattle, Washington, during 2015.

By Dyanne Weiss

Tour of the exhibit
Tour of Pompeii ruins in Italy
California Science Center

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