So, the big event of the day for me is something I’ve been looking forward to for several months: the Pompeii exhibit at the Pacific Science Center in Seattle (the same place where a few years ago I also saw the King Tut exhibit).
In a few words: while I’m glad I got to see it, I am a bit disappointed in the curation of the overall effort in a variety of ways. In not-so-few words, I shall explain why.
But first, let me tell you who I did actually see, deities-wise.
Extremely well-represented throughout was Dionysos/Bacchus (we’ll assume they’re more or less the same for present purposes–at no point did anything I saw in the exhibit explain why one was used over the other, nor that they were the same, but I didn’t read every plaque carefully, nor did I get the audio tour). There were some smaller pieces, but in the first room, there was a fresco–the actual fresco–which I had not known of before, which is shown here.
For me, at least, the first room had some of the most important and impressive artifacts on display, since it was the only place where a specific section on “Religion” existed. There was one display case with a small clay altar (probably about 8-10″ tall), a terra cotta Aesculapius, and metal statuettes of what was labelled as a “Genius” (but may have been a Iuno), along with further metal depictions of a Lar, Mercury, Jupiter, Hercules, and Isis-Fortuna (with “syncretism” not really properly explained). In that same room there was also a large fresco of Herakles and Omphale, which was quite interesting given that it was a depiction of him in his “transvestite” role:
Likewise, there was a fresco of Achilleus in one of the other rooms likewise depicting him in that fashion, when he was discovered by Odysseus on Skyros:
Other actual frescoes on display included this small one of Dionysos and Ariadne (or possibly just a maenad):
And this one, of the Three Graces:
There were also many famous frescoes either recreated or reproduced on the bottoms of incidental parts of the exhibit (e.g. information plaques, etc.) that will be familiar to many of you, like the Dionysos in the “Fruit of the Loom” grape get-up, and this one of Venus, Cupid, and Portunus (or, if you’d prefer, Aphrodite, Eros, and Palaimon/Melikertes):
There was also the following Venus statue–the “Lovatelli Venus”–in one of the later rooms of the exhibit:
Religiously, there was little else in the exhibit of interest; a lot of room was given to objects from everyday life, and while that is interesting to an extent, I have my own biases in this regard…so many things there were selected, I think, to show how similar to modern people the Romans were.
There were a variety of disappointments information-wise (apart from a general lack of good information on religion and mythology). For example, the very first image of the exhibit proper which was seen–and staged very dramatically, as the doors opened automatically, the lighting was done for maximum effect, and the theme song of Rome was playing (!?!), was of “a Roman Emperor,” portrayed with the characteristics of Neptune (in fact, probably a Neptune statue with a re-fashioned face or head)…but, which one?!? To my eyes, it could have been…well, possibly any of the Julio-Claudians (the hair was not quite right for Octavian/Augustus; the face not quite right for Tiberius or Caligula…but it could have been either of them). There was also a youthful portrait head of Caligula later in the exhibit, which was labelled as the “Emperor Gaius.” Yes, that is his “official” name, but why not go with the name by which he’s known infamously?
For as much as they were forward about Hercules’ and Achilleus’ transvestism, there was a bit of shying away from any mention whatsoever of homoeroticism, and likewise sexuality was quite downplayed. There was one room with “erotic” things, where there were many signs telling parents not to let their children in and so forth…and it was a couple of tiny frescoes of coitus a tergo, more or less…given what has been found in Pompeii, that was rather disappointing.
There were some interesting lamps and other instruments of daily life. There was also the impressive Ephebe of Pompeii statue:
But, there were a lot of things I had hoped to see that weren’t on display. For example, there were a number of mosaic pieces, but the Cave Canem was not among them; nor was the Lakshmi statue part of the exhibit, either. There were some nice dog-related other objects, though, including a small dog-shaped jug and a round sculpture of puppies laying on each other.
We watched a 45 minute IMAX film on Greece before going to the exhibit, which was narrated by Nia Vardalos (of My Big Fat Greek Wedding fame), and which mainly featured Athens and Thera/Santorini, with heavy emphasis on Atlantis with the latter…which I think was the tie-in to the Pompeii exhibit, since both were destroyed by volcanoes. At the very end of the exhibit, after the gift shop, there was a short bit done by our local science center on volcanic dangers in Washington, and volcano event readiness; anyone who remembers Mt. St. Helens knows how important that is (and it’s one of the reasons I am glad I don’t live near Tacoma!). The film had some beautiful panoramic photography, and I have to say I was rather deeply moved by all of the Greek music used in it; it was speaking to me on a rather deeper level than the film producers likely intended. I think they rather over-stated the case on how Greece is the most important civilization to have ever existed, and pervasively shaped the West and all the world–yes, it did and it has, but given that I’m a bit of a critic of the idea of “Western Civilization” (a textbook for which is what this sounded like), even though I teach that course, that might be why. Yes, they did make a nod toward Egypt at one point, but that was about it.
I also have to say, I was very disappointed in the gift shop, not only with what was on offer (lots of chintzy reproductions of things made in China…and not even stuff that was seen in the exhibit necessarily, nor of any of the more striking pieces!) and the prices (for a full-color program of probably about 24-30 pages, which didn’t have any information on the actual pieces and was more or less just the main sectional placards in a book was $15!), but there was no proper exhibit book/guide/catalogue. There were small metal statues of Venus, Jupiter, and Cupid (all WAY too modest!), which didn’t remotely resemble anything in the exhibit itself; nonetheless, I got a Venus, since I did not have any images of her to use devotionally before visiting the exhibit, and the Veneralia is coming up in a few days.
But, I’ll say that one other part of the exhibit was pretty good, and yet at the same time, left me with a bit of a strange sense…I’m not sure of what, though. Before being herded through the gift shop, the last part of the exhibit was a short audio-visual/sensual experience of seeing a view of Pompeii and Vesuvius, recreated by computer animation (and very well done, too!) over the hours of August 24th and 25th, 79 C.E. There were strobe lights, rumbling in the ground (not as much as the actual earthquake, of course!), and there was a fog effect released into the room as well, and then the screen raised up and showed our first glimpse of the last room, where the casts of six of the bodies were located.
Most of the ones on display–at least three of the six–were youths or children.
To be honest, I don’t know why the whole thing didn’t seem to resonate as deeply with me as it could have done. One of my students this past quarter had been to it in another location in the U.S., and was very annoyed that the exhibit seemed to be “following” her here; she had said she wasn’t impressed with it, and it could have/should have been better, and she cautioned me that I’ll be disappointed in how little heed they pay to religion throughout it. Perhaps that spoiled it for me. Perhaps it was the attempt at desexualizing and “normalizing” the ancients for a modern, (post-)Protestant and monotheist audience that also impacted me negatively. Perhaps the fact that the emphasis was placed so heavily on everyday implements and such to give a sense of the “daily life” of people in Pompeii, and yet then the climax of the exhibit was seeing casts of some of their bodies…and yet, it still felt a bit too impersonal and perhaps even disrespectful to these actual individuals. Or, perhaps, like the film Pompeii (which I think might have also been on sale in the gift shop–!?!), I simply can’t see things like this any longer with a great deal of enjoyment because I know a bit too much about them, and presenting it in a decontextualized setting where religiosity is entirely divorced and even actively marginalized from the sense of daily life portrayed to the viewer is never going to work for me.
I am happy I saw it, and was able to know of the existence of several of the depictions of the deities and heroes given above, and to have seen them up-close without having to go to Italy (though I’d still like to!). But, unless you have a good bit of money and time to spend, and think nothing of doing so, and can get to Seattle before the end of May (when it leaves the U.S. for good), I don’t know if I’d recommend it or not.