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.
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.