Traveling Exhibitions

The Life and Death of Pompeii at the Pacific Science Center

The opulent objects and spooky body casts from the doomed ancient Roman city.

By Jeremy Buben March 3, 2015

The Pacific Science Center’s latest special exhibit brings the treasures of Pompeii to Seattle to tell the story of life in the time of ancient Rome. Stunning, near perfect artifacts set the scene of daily life while plaster body casts of disaster victims warn about the perils of natural disaster (namely living in close proximity to an active volcano).

The last of three stops on its North American tour, Pompeii: The Exhibition showcases many of the everyday items of Pompeii to inform how objects were kept, used, and valued in ancient times. Pompeii was an affluent town and vacation home for many wealthy Romans, so these items drip with luxury and a healthy dose of hedonism.

The lavish objects on display make it easy to be lured away from the immense amount of didactic wall text and supplemental video content that the exhibit features. Exquisite mosaic floors, sculptural brass oil lamps, and sumptuous gold jewelry permeate an exhibit that also features marble statuary and a few objects a bit more quotidian in nature: fishing equipment, ceramic vessels for wine, iron cookware, the armor of the always popular gladiators, and even a bathtub. A mock brothel provides an opportunity to display a few graphic frescoes and over-the-top phallic statuary, but unfortunately what appear to be rooms curtained off is nothing more than a tease. (For the more sensitive visitors and families with young ones, the brothel can easily be bypassed.)

But the real story develops once Pompeii: The Exhibit gets to the grizzly details of 79 A.D.'s disaster. After exhibit visitors have had their fill of the opulent life of the city’s inhabitants, they are ushered into a room that transforms a picturesque view of a Mediterranean town at the base of Mount Vesuvius into what feels like a vision of the apocalypse, complete with smoke machine and a rumbling floor underfoot. On a screen, Vesuvius erupts and ash falls from the sky as columns tumble and ceilings collapse. Once the dust settles, the screen raises and those lavish objects are gone. The splendid life of Pompeii becomes only a memory. The final part of this segment deals with the morbid reality of Pompeii’s inhabitants as surreal body casts of actual people unable to flee the disaster dot the room.

What comes next is an exercise in poor taste of epic proportions. Before visitors can get to the final segment of the Science Center’s presentation of Pompeii, they must first traverse the ultra tacky gift shop. Patrons find themselves among foam gladiator swords, Mount Vesuvius snow globes, fresco afghans, and nearly any consumable item imaginable festooned with the text POMPEII. One pleasant discovery amongst the hardly necessary souvenir shot glasses and coffee mugs were the costume reproductions of ancient jewelry found in the show, but the entire thing still seems uncouth.

After fleeing the gift shop, the final room examines the connection between Pompeii’s proximity to an active volcano and Seattle similar relationship to the active volcano Mount Rainier. It illustrates the importance of disaster preparedness and the perils that we potentially face with an active volcano in our own backyard, while highlighting the potential of other seismic threats, as we saw with the devastating mudslide at Oso.

Pompeii: The Exhibit offers a chance to see exquisite objects rarely let out of Italy as well as a very thorough look at the history of the town and its devastating end. The opulent objects on display are absolutely stunning and the body casts give history an undeniable human connection. As with most special exhibits that the Science Center offers: don’t leave it until the last minute as the prime visiting times sell out. And for the betterment of the planet (and humanity in general), please refrain from supporting the manufacture of useless souvenir junk and leave the Pompeii snow globes on the shelf.

Pompeii: The Exhibit
Thru May 25, Pacific Science Center, $29–$32

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