Thursday, 1 August 2013

Raunchy Romans at the British Museum's Pompeii

Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum at the British Museum and the Lichtenstein Retrospective at Tate Modern were slated to be the two biggest blockbuster exhibitions for London’s museums in 2013. If you travel on the Tube then you couldn’t fail to have noticed the absolutely enormous marketing campaign that has driven Pompeii to sell out week after week for it’s timed entry slots. Also if you are like me, you might have been slightly baffled by a poster featuring an old-timey looking picture of a volcano. You might have even, just for a second, thought ‘wow, amazing that they have a picture of that eruption’, before feeling like an idiot and glancing around furtively to see if anyone was reading your mind at just that moment.

 A lucky few of us then have been able to snag tickets to get in to Pompeii. So, how did it stack up? Well it was…you know… alright? Moderate is probably the best word to describe it. It’s like everything the British Museum puts on: blockbuster historical themes that everyone studied in school, plus completely amazing one of a kind objects all mixed in with a simple linear story-telling strategy not unlike a text book cut out and stuck to the walls. But if course it doesn’t matter that the content is derivative everyone is going to see it anyway.

To be fair to the British Museum, they have tried to do something a bit different. Rather than just focusing on the gruesome plaster casts of Vesuvius’s victims, the exhibition focuses instead on the everyday life of Romans in this area that the eruption accidently preserved. I can honestly say I did learn some new things. I’ll cut them down to three to make it simple.

1) Never ever start an exhibition with a 10-15 minute long introductory video. 10 minutes?! In what way does a step-by-step scientific explanation of how volcanoes work contribute to your ‘life and death’ theme? Does this really need to be coupled with contemporary images of Italians making dinner? I felt like I was watching a bad into to Italian language film. And that theme of linking it to present day didn’t really follow on in the exhibition anyway, so why bother? Stop it exhibition planners, no one wants to watch intro videos longer than 4 minutes.

2) Whoever organized the logistics for this exhibition must be some kind of registry/collections management/ object transport god. Did you see that carbonized table that looked barely strong enough to support its own weight, let alone travel by plane? How do you get 6-foot tall Roman frescos hung up on a wall? How much insurance did the Government Indemnity Scheme foot for this? It’s worth going to see just to marvel at the sheer cultural power the British Museum wields to get these things from Italy to London. Seriously impressive.

Now how do we get these down again...
3) Romans are f**king hilarious and raunchy. Seriously. You can try to teach me all about how the Romans were early feminists (a theme pushed none too subtly throughout) but no one is going to remember anything else except the rapey goat statue and the inappropriate tavern fresco. The hilarious cartoon-ish decorations from a tavern feature a narrative of a couple getting frisky, two lads getting in a bar fight over a game of dice, and subsequently getting chucked out by the owner. ‘It was a three you cock-sucker, I won!’, one of them shouts in Latin. Bet you wished you learned things like that in school. And then of course, there’s this.

When we entered this area of the exhibition, the friend I was with (naming no names) actually shrieked with joy. ‘I can’t believe it’s here! It’s one of my ten sexiest objects in museums!’ Apparently this anonymous museum professional (for her own protection) actually has a list of incredibly explicit objects in museums around the world that she wants to visit. Well, congratulations, this one certainly is spectacular. The label tried to argue that this Roman garden statue is in fact misunderstood. A satyr his himself half-goat, so it’s not really that strange, and besides, maybe the female goat likes it? Not so sure about that. I think it’s just that zany Roman sense of humour we all know and love.

All in all, you should still probably go to this exhibition if you get the chance. Nothing earth shattering here, but there are certainly some stunning objects to be seen and interesting Roman-based trivia to be learned. I’ll leave you with just this shocking revelation. Did you know Roman houses had GLASS WINDOW-PANES?! Watch out for that on your next pub quiz.

Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum is on until September 29th. Book tickets well in advance! 

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