The title is a bit gimmicky, but, you know what? I like it. It represents the exhibition in a nutshell, and that's what an exhibition title should do.
The first clue that Pompeii would be good were the partners that worked with the Royal Ontario Museum to create it. It was three years in development, and timed to coincide with Italian Cultural Month in Toronto (and the Italian Film Festival) and - we can assume - the Pan Am Games. It's certainly well-timed, with Canada hosting the woman's FIFA World Cup, the aforementioned games, and it's usual long list of annual events in the city that draw a large international (and local) crowd. And the marketing campaign has been running rampant for weeks now, coming across almost like a movie (including dramatic trailer with even more dramatic voice-over). Leaving aside my opinions on 'blockbuster' exhibitions (that's a whole other post), let's reviewing Pompeii: in the Shadow of the Volcano.
There are six galleries (plus an 'introduction), although only the last is clearly separated into its own space. The others flow from one to the other, and after the entry hall, it's very much a non-directional design. Which I like. Too often exhibitions tell you what to look at, and in this 21st century museum we need to understand that visitors are different, rather than one solid whole, and exhibits need to cater to that. Free-flow galleries are a good way to do this. I went off on a tangent last year about the British Museum's inability to properly do labels for their Vikings exhibition, and blessedly the ROM makes far fewer mistakes with Pompeii. There are the larger 'theme' text panels which introduce each exhibit, and then text panels for individual objects/pictures. It's a nice way to cater to those that want to read everything and those that would just really like to see things and keep on walking.
The main emphasis is entirely on people. The objects and text panels are focused on the stories of Pompeii, directed towards Roman life especially. As a theme of an exhibition about death, I like this focus. It makes the first five galleries feel like a story about life. There's an underlying theme about the volcano, which mostly appears at the start of gallery 1 and in gallery 5, but it's not the focus, anymore than it was for the people of Pompeii. The stories are not morbid, but explain how people lived in Pompeii, using objects from the site and from Herculaneum (and I think Stabiae, too, though that isn't specified). The exhibits all coincide with each other, showing food, entertainment, daily life, the rich and the poor, architecture, religion, etc. There is also a small section on sex in the ancient city, which is separated in a corner with a warning label on the front. It's also painted in red. Just to be obvious. It's not blatant, however, and would certainly be okay for very young children (toddlers and below), but not for those a little more aware of things (they'll be questions!) But it's parents' choice. It's interesting that, in this exhibit, sex is quartered in a small area, but death is ever present and visible. An interesting take on how we usually do exhibits and one that I don't disagree with.
I could have used more contextual labels. The objects explain what they are but not what site they are from, their known (or guessed) dates, or specify materials. I was missing those (the BM had the opposite problem). I know a lot of people don't care, but it's important to give context and be specific. People will look if it's there and they might actually learn something. And ancient dates tend to bring it home. The coin timeline, however, was nicely done.
Also nicely if...graphically, done was the timeline of the eruption, making it starkly clear in black and (red) what happened from the moment of eruption to the end. The focus on Pliny's account to Tacitus of the eruption is also good, though again a bit more about Pliny might have been useful context.
I can't comment on the interactives. Most of them were not yet in situ for the media preview, but I have it on good authority they will be there by the launch. There are two nice (if small) screens that offer visitors a 360 degree view of parts of the Pompeii site, for those who have not visited (or will never visit), although bigger might have been better - they are stashed in a corner and I wonder if they will be obvious when the gallery becomes busy during timed entry. However, from what I've heard about the interactives to come, they should be fantastic for kids and definitely enjoyable, though in very specific areas. The vast majority of the galleries are things in glass with text panels, and I think many family groups are going to be somewhat lost. However, though Pompeii is a great subject to tie in with Roman history for children, it is desperately hard to make 'child friendly'.
Full points go to the team that decided on the first object in the first gallery, though: it's a large piece of pumice stone with a PLEASE TOUCH panel above it and right at kid level. It may turn out to be the only touchable object in the galleries, but it's a good one. Though being able to pick it up and feel the lightness would have been a fun addition (though hard to engineer).
The galleries all have a similar vibe (hence why it's so hard to tell when you've strayed into a new one), but the last gallery stands out. It's harsh and cold and very, very, clear. You've just walked past a 30 foot screen showing a pyroclasic cloud barrelling down at you and suddenly it's behind you, the noise slowly fading, and you walk out into a wide space where there is one panel five displays; wide shelves with trench barricades and figures in plaster. It's is both more eerie and less so than rounding a corner in Pompeii to a display case full of plaster casts. The lighting and mood (and the silence of the gallery here - by this time most everyone had left and there were only 5 of us and a film crew in the space) lend an eerie feel to the place and make you feel like you're walking through a graveyard - at night. But in another way, they are more 'display' pieces here then they are in Pompeii. More things to be looked at rather than shied away from. In Pompeii, I couldn't bring myself to take photos of the casts; it felt wrong, somehow; like an intrusion on a private moment. Here, that feeling was suppressed. It wasn't so much a private moment, but one fully on display. And maybe that's a bad thing. The casts are not considered human remains, although in many ways they are more human than most skeletons appear. And yet, they are not treated the same, because they are not the same as a 'dead body'. They are only the ghost image of one, and yet the visceral feeling of them is much more real than a skeleton will ever be. These are people in their death throws; screaming, yelling, clutching each other in their last moments while they quickly suffocate. It's horrible; but it's a lasting image the visitor will take with them into the (thankfully) staid gift shop.
I almost wanted something more. Some small space before I was spilled out into commercialization, just to reflect on the fact that - although Pompeii is an excellent snap-shot of Roman life - it exists only because it was destroyed, unlike most archaeological sites that exist because they were not. It's something to think about.
Mostly, I ponder what my old instructor Andrew Wallace-Hadrill might have thought. Italy has done well to loan these much treasured objects (though the best of the murals and mosaics for which Pompeii is famous are still housed in Italy), and to be so very generous with their help in creating the exhibition.
It's not perfect, but it's pretty good, and that comes from both a student of Roman History and a doctor of Museum Studies. So I should know, right?
It does remain an expensive day out, with transportation and parking fees getting ever higher in Toronto, not to mention the ROM's entry fee ($28 adults, $20 children). For this, it might just be worth it becoming a member for the year, at $97 for an individual. Four trips would make it worth your while, if you live around the city. I do, however, wish they would do family prices for exhibitions, much like museums in Europe do. Two parents and two children would be $96 entry, if my math is correct, which continues to make this a rather exclusive museum. I'd recommend going Friday evenings, if you can, when tickets are helpfully cheaper. But, if you can't get to Naples, then this will be worth the price of admission.