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Remains

Opinion | October 23, 2011
By Eliza Mills

 

The Museum of Science is not the most serious place in the world. It’s an interactive museum, noticeably geared towards kids and families, with plenty of things to “play” with in each exhibit. The most recent addition to the museum, however, is decidedly somber. Since the Pompeii exhibit left Pompeii, visitors have flocked to museums worldwide to see the famed body casts and the remains of an early-documented society. What makes the Pompeii exhibit so interesting, I think, is not the age of the artifacts (very old), or how tragic the story is. There are accounts of earlier civilizations in writing and art, and terrible things have happened to groups of people in history before and since Pompeii.

What’s really captivating about Pompeii is the humanity of the exhibit. In a time before photographs, very little about art was uncalculated; the vision of life that we see in paintings and sculpture is premeditated, intentional, and often static. In stark contrast to all things not spontaneous, there is Pompeii, a city buried in ash, a captured portrait of people living and dying in the most human way—how could you not want to see that? Here are people clutching their loved ones, needing and protecting each other, running away or trying to hide. This is your candid photograph, cemented in life-size plaster molds.

Photography has completely changed the way we look at history. Some visitors at the Pompeii exhibit took issue with the display of bodies; since we’ve had the ability to take a snapshot, there have been many documents of sad, upsetting moments. The casts at the exhibit are displayed tactfully, but because they stand out more than photos, they draw attention to these types of concerns. We’ve seen societies shaken and shattered by war and violence; we’ve collected images of people braving natural disasters and disease. In the age of the digital photograph especially, there is very little left undocumented. If someone in the distant future wants to know what we looked like when we weren’t ready to be looked at, they’ll have a wealth of images to choose from: photos of the living, of the dead, of people struggling and triumphing all over the world. Pompeii is fascinating because no one was ready for it. It’s more striking than most photographs because of its heaviness,. There is more tangibility in the casts; they are three-dimensional, life-sized, statues that have taken on a real life. Go see this exhibit. It’s haunting and at times a bit odd, but it’s the first snapshot of something—this is a story, a picture of humanity thrown into chaos in a way we can still recognize.