Pompeii Exhibit Gives Glimpse of Ancient Disaster

By Kathie Farnell
Photos by Jack Purser

“A Day in Pompeii,” showing through June 3, 2007, at the Gulf Coast Exploreum Science Center in Mobile, Alabama, gives visitors a 3-D look at everyday life in ancient Rome. In addition to photo murals, architectural features, an audio guide, and hundreds of artifacts, the exhibit includes haunting plaster body casts of those who perished in the disaster. The Exploreum’s state of the art virtual reality theater adds a brief tour through the streets of Pompeii.

The city of 20,000 was buried in 79 A.D. during an eruption of Mt. Vesuvius and lay under thirty feet of ash until 1748, when it was rediscovered and found to be remarkably intact. The Exploreum exhibit includes loaves of bread, carbonized but easily recognizable, and the remains of figs, olives and peaches from a resident’s hastily-abandoned meal. The wealth of everyday household items is one of the exhibit’s surprises. Another is the extensive use of color. The exhibit includes the brightly painted frescoed walls depicting birds, animals and flowers which surrounded the city’s gardens, and the religious paintings—some of them frisky in nature—which covered interior walls. A video display in the exhibit combines footage of volcanic eruptions with a voiceover narrative taken from Pliny the Younger’s eyewitness report, which describes the darkness after the eruption: “as if a lamp had been put out in a closed room.”

The eruption was slightly less powerful than that of Mount St. Helens in 1980; it wreaked havoc because of its location in a heavily populated area. A common misconception about Pompeii is that the eruption suddenly engulfed the city, killing all its inhabitants. In fact, ninety percent of the residents escaped. Of the ten percent who couldn’t or wouldn’t leave in time, some achieved an eerie kind of immortality. Because they were covered with volcanic ash where they fell, centuries later their images could be preserved as lifelike body casts by pouring plaster into hollows in the ash.

Eight of these casts are included in the Exploreum exhibit, and they have a room to themselves at one end of the exhibit. Brett Berg, the Exploreum’s director of marketing and public relations, said that for many residents of the Gulf Coast, the images evoke the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. A dog is left to perish on the end of a chain. A young woman, thought to be pregnant, lies with her dress pulled over her face in a vain attempt to filter the ash. A couple, found inside a house, embrace. A man, lying face down, wears the ankle manacles of a slave.

In addition to the main exhibit, the Exploreum is offering an array of related exhibits and activities. The Hearin-Chandler Virtual Journeys Theater presents a twelve-minute 3-D tour of Pompeii’s theater district, while the J.L.Bedsole IMAX Theater is showing the 2006 film “Greece: Secrets of the Past” which explores the cataclysmic eruption ofthe island of Santorini in 1646 B.C.

When it leaves the Exploreum, “A Day in Pompeii” travels to the Science Museum of Minnesota, the San Diego Natural History Museum and Discovery Place in Charlotte, North Carolina. In 2009, the exhibit returns to Pompeii for refurbishment before heading out to Liverpool, England.

For more information on the Gulf Coast Exploreum’s “A Day in Pompeii,” visit the website at www.exploreum.net or call toll free: 877-625-4386.

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