Imagine someone discovering a settlement in the UK 1,000 years from now. Not a huge, bustling city like London; more Milton Keynes, or Derby. Somewhere that offers a very everyday view of urban life in that place and time. That’s what this exhibition does, and it does it very well, through an overarching domestic theme highlighted by its design as a typical home of the time, complete with kitchen, toilet, and even a garden.
In these spaces, 250 exhibits quietly and memorably evoke the ordinary experience of life in these times. Out in the street along with the bakery and the butcher’s shop lies the heartbreaking cast of a little dog, and there in the entrance to the house he appears again – this time in a floor mosaic. All around, equally absorbing exhibits paint a wonderfully real picture of the two towns just before Mount Vesuvius buried them in AD79: from carbonised food and stunning wall paintings to – this being the Romans – lots of erotica (watch the kids delight in spotting the cake tray figurine with the huge cock, or the phallic wind chime).
This isn’t to say ‘Life and Death…’ avoids the tragedy and horror of the eruption; a section on the catastrophe has just enough casts and interpretative material to lend insight and poignancy without tipping over into the mawkish or gratuitous. Through this thoughtful mix of practical and beautiful, prosaic and extraordinary, the British Museum has created an experience that’s almost as good, and definitely as informative, as visiting the real thing.
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Easily the most lucid and extensive, and certainly the most humane of the BM's Reading Room exhibitions that I've seen. Just as the museum's mummies are one of their most famous draws because the death fascination factor, my own association with Pompeii is the body-shaped holes left in stone and ash that resulted from the fierce sudden heat of a volcanic eruption. But the terrible magic of the eruption is that it preserved a snapshot. Yes, there are casts of bodies (including, early, a dog) but it's the details of daily life that make this such a rich and moving walk-through. With each room themed on the room of a typical, if large roman house, we explore the public and private lives through a bedroom (servants on hand watch and join in with your lovemaking), kitchen (strange how seeing a preserved loaf of ordinary-looking bread can connect you so powerfully to the past) and other spaces. I found very provocative the comparison the show makes between the slaves of the time and with our own domestic workers, in terms of the way it made me reappraise how we view our "cruel" ancestors.
The content of this British Museum blockbuster is fascinating, with informative interpretation and varied styles of presentation. The racier side of Roman life is hinted at, although this remains firmly a family show. The queues are still massive and you've not got long left, so book your ticket soon. For more from me, check out www.curatedlondon.co.uk | @CuratedLondon
Life & Death in Pompeii & Herculaneum at The British Museum + Phantom Railings Friday night - and the cultural spaces in London which offer late, even spontaneous entry are especially thrilling…but Usain Bolt's return performance in the 100m of the Anniversary Games cannot be missed 'live' on a big screen at home. What to do? Try something central, like "Pompeii" at the British Museum: do-able in not much more than an hour. The professionals have already gushed in 5-star unison about this classic revival show: what the Romans did for us; the piped water, the fountains, the frescoes and the ubiquitous phalluses. The latter are arguably symbolic of somewhat repetitive content overall and are likewise repetitively justified in the exhibitionist notes as comedic and protective - not at all sexual, we are informed. Whatever you say, the story is well-told, informative, sometimes amusing and often riveting. The museum's Great Court is one of London's architectural wonders and the circular Reading Room is used to excellent effect for spectaculars such as "Pompeii" (and "Hajj" and "Shakespeare" in 2012). But there's nothing more seductive about London than the artistic wonders spread in apparently random, orgiastic fashion across the city. Imagine the eager anticipation of approaching the British Museum from the rear (via Malet Street), turning into a rush of delight brought on by literally stumbling onto a pavement which turns out to be part of a surprise, interactive sound sculpture. As we pedestrians walk alongside a sombre, brick wall outside an overgrown square - spookier than a forgotten cemetery - our footsteps resonate in metallic rhythm, simulating a stick being dragged child-like across the eponymous, "Phantom Railings". It really is the ultimate in fore-play.
Superb. I took my time and soaked up every aspect of this exhibition. I will return taking my wife and sons This needs to be seen and enjoyed by all