Friday, September 2, 2011

Pompeii comes to Times Square

Earlier this month a friend and I visited the Pompeii Exhibit at the Discovery Museum in Times Square.
First, we were brought into a room where we watched a short movie that gave an overview of what Pompeii was like before the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. When the movie concluded the doors swung open and we were led into the exhibit which had displays of artifacts that have since been unearthed. Many of the artifacts were still in pristine condition. Because they had been encased in volcanic ash for over 2000 years, they had been protected from damage by the elements and remained virtually unchanged. This part of the exhibit introduced visitors to the history, culture, and lifestyle of the people of Pompeii, giving a glimpse into their everyday lives.

Once we had worked our way through the entire room, a docent announced that there was another movie to watch which would be played every five minutes. She said that visitors should make sure they took their time to see everything in the exhibit before viewing the movie because once you went into the theater there was no coming back. At this point, my friend asked me if I thought this was the mid-way point or if the movie was the end of the exhibit. I said that it would be very unusual to put another movie right at the mid-way point of the exhibit but I later found out why.

We stepped into the movie theater and the doors closed behind us. The lights went out and the screen lit up showing a view of Pompeii as if we were standing in the middle of the city looking out onto Vesuvius. The ground began to rumble and smoke started to come out of the volcano. The movie continued to depict what the eruption would have been like, revealing a sped-up time-lapse of the eruption and increasing temperature reading. Then smoke began to fill the room and the screen went dark. Suddenly, the doors swung open to the next room. This room, which was hidden from the first half of the exhibit, was dark and somber and had casts of human bodies that had been encased in the volcanic ash. At this moment I realized why they chose to put the movie at the mid-way point. Pompeii before Vesuvius erupted and Pompeii after Vesuvius erupted. Well done.

This part of the exhibit was extremely moving and powerful. The casts showed so much detail that you could see the folds in their clothing and the fear on their faces. While conducting excavations of the site, occasional voids in the ash layer had been found that contained human remains. These were spaces left by the decomposed bodies and so a technique of injecting plaster into them (today resin is used) was developed to perfectly recreate the forms of the victims in the moments just before Vesuvius took their lives.

The room was black with just spotlights on each cast and there were curtains with colored lights dancing around on them. I'm not sure what they were trying to do with this effect. Maybe something to do with the afterlife? The lights were a bit cheesy and it would have been much better off without them. Whatever effect they were going for really didn't work on me or my friend. But overall this was the best part of the exhibit.

That room then led out to another room. At this point, the exhibit got a little too long. The room had even more artifacts and a timeline of Pompeii's history. There was a ton of reading to do and it became exhausting but I really did enjoy seeing all of the artifacts. My friend was amazed at all of the glass bottles that were left completely intact. It was most fascinating to me to see the everyday objects like the hairbrushes and mirrors and cooking pots. It reminded me that these were people living everyday lives just like myself and they and their entire civilization were frozen in time the moment that volcano erupted. Their whole city became a giant time capsule that has now allowed us to learn so much about what life was like 2,000 years ago. After seeing the technology they created such as medical instruments, pots that filtered water, and an aqueduct that provided water for more than 25 street fountains, at least four public baths, and a large number of private houses and businesses, I imagine how much more they could have invented and how advanced they would have become had they not been wiped out.

It's unfortunate that more people haven't chosen to visit this exhibit but it seems that Pompeii is doomed with misfortune and has found itself competing with the Discovery Museum's extremely popular Harry Potter Exhibit next door. I personally think it's a wonderful thing that this exhibit was developed so that we can learn about this once forgotten civilization. In a way, this exhibit has brought Pompeii back to life.