This past summer, the California Science Center put on one of its feature exhibits for the year: Pompeii: The Exhibition. The tagline read, “What nature destroyed, it also preserved.” In promotional material, both title and tagline stood against an image of a fiery volcano. From the explosive promotional imagery, to the trailer, to the hype among the local college history buffs, the exhibit promised to deliver. As one of those local college history buffs, I made it a priority to attend. While I enjoyed the exhibit itself, what struck me most was the Science Center’s treatment of the task of putting the dead on display in a respectful, humanizing manner.
I attended on one the the Science Center’s less busy days, so the wait wasn’t long. The exhibit opened with a video detailing the events of the day Vesuvius erupted and the basic facts of the disaster for those who weren’t fully aware of the history of the site. From there, we passed through doors constructed to look like the doors of a Pompeiian villa and into the first room. The exhibit attempted to simulate a tour of a villa in an effort to show the visitors what life was like in Pompeii before the eruption. The exhibit displayed recovered statues, furniture that once sat in opulent Roman homes, various amphorae, a priceless cache of jewelry, armor featuring ancient graffiti, recovered Pompeiian medical equipment, even a reconstructed Pompeiian brothel (the adults-only section of the exhibit, understandably). After walking through the rooms full of artifacts, we were ushered into a room with a large screen and treated to a “four-dimensional” experience of the eruption of Vesuvius, complete with flashing lights and smoke machines. From there, we continued on to the grand finale: the dead.
These were not dead bodies in the traditional sense. Anyone even vaguely familiar with Pompeii knows that the ash and pyroclast buried victims in the throes of death and that any living material has since rotted away. These were only casts made when archaeologists poured plaster into the spaces in the ash and pyroclast that had been left after all organic tissue, over the last two millennia, disintegrated.
Unlike Tutanchamun’s mummy or the embalmed body of Vladimir Lenin, the thought of these casts does not inspire the fearful awe we as a culture tend to feel toward decomposing or preserved human flesh. However, there is something infinitely more personal about seeing a cast of a man struggling to crawl away from the oncoming heat and debris, of a boy who was not even considered a man by ancient standards hiding his face, or of a woman curled around the bulge of her pregnant belly.
Walking among the casts, I couldn’t help but feel a tight sensation in my gut. To look at these depictions of human beings in their final moments, all of them in agony, felt entirely too personal. There is a distinct humanness about hiding one’s face or slumping on the ground in defeat that is absent in the arranged poses of Egyptian mummies. It was a solemn room; even the youngest visitors kept their voices lowered to whispers, and I doubted they were even old enough to have truly understood death just yet.
Much of what granted the exhibit such an effect was the precise effort made by the Science Center to humanize the citizens of Pompeii. Through showing both the fantastic and the ordinary artifacts, the exhibit helped visitors to develop an empathy that comes from seeing that the people on display lived normal daily lives. It portrayed the dead as human beings, even though the remains did not consist of a clear skeleton or mummy. The people who died in Pompeii were not pharaohs, famous communists, assassinated presidents, wealthy emperors, or any of the typical deceased people we place in museum display cases. These individuals lived average lives for their day and age; some were wealthy, some worked hard to feed their families, and some were slaves. The awe of these individuals’ remains lies in their normalcy, in the simple fact that they were largely unremarkable people living lives typical for people in their situations, in their various contexts.
The humanization of the dead is a factor overlooked in many exhibits, most notably those of dead rulers. The averageness of many of the victims of the destruction of Pompeii does make this easier, but the exhibit at the California Science Center sets a good example of how to start making the dead out to be more than just dead. It is easy for a visitor to forget that a plaster cast or sarcophagus is not only a chunk of material but also a representation of a human being who once lived, breathed, loved, and experienced just as that visitor does as they view that representation. It is in part the museum’s job to ensure that the dignity of the dead is maintained by reminding that visitor that the deceased—be it a pharaoh or the remains of a Roman slave—was once a living human and deserves respect through empathy and understanding.