Pompeii in Melbourne

Gipsabdrücke von Hohlräumen, die ein 79 n.Chr ...Image via Wikipedia

Typical of my random, capricious lifestyle at present I worked to nearly midnight on Wednesday way over-delivering on a job, and then spent yesterday afternoon drinking coffee, visiting the Melbourne Museum and last night attending the Taste of Melbourne show at the Exhibition buildings.

The museum visit was pre-empted by the exhibition last night. I've long intended to visit the 'new' museum, which opened 6-7 years ago, but never seemed to get around to it. As the museum is next door to the Exhibition building this was the ideal opportunity – cruise the museum for a couple of hours and then pop next door to get stuck into the food, wine and produce exhibited at the Taste of Melbourne. That's pretty well how it worked out.

One of the drivers for visiting the museum now was the Pompeii exhibition. I've been to Pompeii and found it pretty interesting, but also pretty spread out – and though fascinating at times the power of it is diluted by being spread out over an area of a few square kilometres. At the museum it promised to be concentrated into the space of a few rooms.

Of course looking at the various exhibits is not like being in Pompeii and walking down the cobbled lanes rutted by generations of chariots long gone, or laying hands on the bricks and mortar of the homes of Romans now long dead. There is not that immediacy, but there are compensations.

Looking back now at my visit to Pompeii what was missing was some kind of context. There were a few bits and pieces on display, and guided tours through the ruins, but there was little effort to explain, to illuminate what it was like to live there, and what it must have been like on that fateful day. Not that I remember anyway.

This is where museums are good. What they lack in the physical exhibits they compensate by reaching into their curatorial bag of  tricks. And so yesterday while there were odd little bits and pieces exhibited they were augmented by more imaginative displays and shows. For example, there was a animated 3D movie which imagined a fixed camera looking out over Pompeii on the day Vesuvius erupted. Time laps film was taken as such as the first tremors set a few tiles sliding from rooftops and the local dogs barking, all the way through to the eruption, the smoke billowing in the air and pumice raining down on the town setting it alight and burying the stone buildings beneath its growing weight. It conncluded with the awesome a fearsome spectacle of a wall of dark cloud charging to and burying the camewra. What was left afterwards was a wasteland, Pompeii buried beneath tonnes of ashen rubble, with only the highest structures here and there poking through the surface.

Other than that there were the usual audio-visual displays and explanations of what happened and why, a history of Vesuvius and some general info on vulcanology. 

Besides the 3D show there were two things that really fascinated me. One, of course, was the casts made of people who had died in the eruption. These casts were made where people had been buried in the ash and decomposed, leaving a hollow in the shape of their bodies the moment they died. They're eerie in a way, fascinating for what they are. I remember seeing some of these in Pompeii, but there is no end to the fascination I find. It's pretty macabre perhaps, but understandable.

Most of the casts were familiar. A man sitting on the ground, his knees pulled tight to his chest, his head buried into his knees. A dead girl with her dress over her head to keep the ash out. There was couple I had not seen before, close and touching in their last moments. And another, a man in shackles, a slave presumably, or a criminal, who had almost made it out. Most poignant for me though was the dog.

I've seen the dog before. It's poignant for me because it is a dog. Rightly or wrongly it's hard not to see the family pet as more innocent than its masters. In this case the dog was evidently in some agony, its body twisted back upon itself as if writhing in pain. It is preserved like that, buried beneath tonnes of ash for two millenium. As I read of it there was something more I did not know: the dog had been chained up: it didn't have a chance. Poor thing.

The other thing that really fascinated me was the Pompeiian graffiti they had replicated here. It brought an immediacy to the history, it made real the people who had lived there and died there. Much of it is witty or scathing or plain old gossipy. Some is boastful, a Roman legionary going on about what a stallion he is or how many women he screwed and where, and a good proportion of it is pretty blunt and sexual. The Roman's were a raunchy lot.

All in all, not bad for $20, and then there's the rest of the library to see. Worth visiting.

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