The destruction of Pompeii by Mount Vesuvius is one of the most famous disasters in human history. One of the reasons that it has remained in the public mind for so long is that for two centuries archaeologists have carefully excavated the doomed city. The nature of the eruption and its fast-moving pyroclastic flow literally stopped time on one afternoon in 79 C.E. The new exhibit featuring artifacts from Pompeii at the Houston Museum of Natural Science brings the magnitude of the disaster home with a cunning combination of scholarly somberness and pure spectacle.
The exhibit is timed to give visitors a chance to experience the special effects. The first room features a brief video introduction about the eruption and the Roman world when it occurred. At the conclusion, wooden gates dramatically open to welcome visitors into a recreation of a rich Roman villa.
Though many of the items on display are indeed genuine Pompeiian artifacts, they are not all that dissimilar from items that appeared in the gladiator exhibit the museum hosted in 2017. This was near the height of the Roman empire and they were a center of cultural exportation, so this isn’t all that surprising.
However, the exquisite presentation of artifacts in terms of simple daily life in Pompeii do imbue them with new meaning. One that really stood out to me was a circle of silver coins. Normally, coins are just one of those things you see in a museum, but curator of archaeology Dirk Van Tuerenhout explained that these particular coins were found scattered near the body of a man who was running for his life from oncoming death. There’s a profound difference between seeing pocket change that could have been used for anything and money that was a desperate last item someone took as their universe was destroyed.
The real reason to check out the exhibit comes at the end. In a darkened room dominated by a giant screen, a timeline of the city’s destruction is shown. The horrific day is compressed to a few brutal minutes. The experience is heighted with speakers that play low frequencies that make your bones shake, leading up to a wave of dry ice that rushes towards the crowd to match the ash that obliterated Pompeii. Then, fans suck it all away and there is only bleak silence. The screen rises into the ceiling and gives access to the hall beyond.
It’s filled with the casts of corpses, some with bones and teeth still visible. Captured in their last moments of terror and pain, these people (and one dog) are were preserved under layers of ash. When strange holes were found while digging in the city, plaster was poured in. What came out was the literal face of the devastation.
This could come across as cheap sensationalism, and there is just a tiny smidge of Michael Bay in the whole thing. However, it’s offset by the deep reverence for the civilization caught up in the disaster and the miracle of human craft. Two thousand years were not enough to erase Pompeii, and to see paintings, burnt food, and even delicate glassware that has survived one of nature’s mightiest calamities is awe inspiring. Even the people, terrifying as they are to see in their rictus, have outlasted the Roman Empire itself. There is something beautiful in that.
Pompeii: The Exhibition is open daily through Monday, September 6 at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, 5555 Hermann Park. For more information, visit hmns.org or call (713) 639-4629. $15 - $30, not included in regular museum admission.
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