Monday, February 22, 2010


I visited Pompeii as a child, in the late Seventies, and I remember the heat and the crowds moving from house to house, and those heartbreaking plaster casts of people caught in their dying moments, of course, but mostly I remember the streets: the grooves left in the paving by the wheels of the chariots, and those rows of elevated stones that served as pedestrian crossings. There was a comforting familiarity about the latter, and a powerful concrete marker of the time past about the former, of gestures repeated centuries earlier by other people on that very place where I was standing. I might even have felt as if my being there created a connection, but if so no doubt I soon had to hurry along not to miss the next stop in our visit, because when you move with a crowd you cannot dally.

My mother has spoken to me since of her own first visit, in May of 1956. She was twenty-five at the time and had grown up with a passion for antiquities that couldn’t be satiated in her native North, not even in the museums of Milan, so that first trip to Rome and beyond had a very special significance for her. I witnessed another such first much later, in 1980, when she finally went to Greece. At any rate, on the day when she and her friend Lina arrived in Pompeii they had the place virtually to themselves, and what she described to me is precisely the feeling to have found herself alone in the company of ancient people.

(Don’t get me wrong: it’s not as if either of us has ever had anything against other tourists, but I knew what she meant, and how much harder it is to evoke those particular ghosts when you are in the much more concrete and sweaty, noisy company of scores of your contemporaries.)

It seems to me that if there’s any one thing that the modern, experiential museum is about, it is to find ways to manufacture connections such as the ones that I have just described. I was reminded of this recently when I visited the A Day In Pompeii exhibition currently showing at Te Papa. Here, besides some quite lovely artifacts and a selection of those haunting body casts - on which more in a minute - the visitor is treated to interactive computer reconstructions of the inside of a Pompeian house, where you can ‘pick up’ and view from all angles some of the household objects (my son loved this), and to a frankly rather nifty 3D film of the events of that last day in 79AD. A portion of the exhibition area is also meant to reproduce a street section complete with a couple of storefronts.

It is, as you’d expect, a very accessible and expertly produced show. It also runs alongside a number of cultural events - including a Lorenzo Buhne concert that I am sorry to have missed - that contribute to making those connections broader, deeper and hopefully more meaningful. On the Web side, I especially liked the idea of encouraging visitors to upload to a dedicated flickr group their own photos of Pompeii (here you can see Matthew O’Reilly’s take on those wheel ruts).

I have no quarrel whatsoever with any of this, and I'm in fact on record wishing that more of our permanent archaeological and art collections back home made similar efforts to be accessible to a broader public. But Pompeii is also a limit case in history in which the past preserved speaks to us in very unique ways, and where the relationship between the material trace and the symbolic largely pre-empts the work of the modern museum.

On the one hand, Pompeii is the absolute authentic, a city-artifact interred by ash and pumice, forgotten in the space of a generation and lost to history for fifteen centuries before being slowly brought back to the surface - a work that continues to this day. Whilst elsewhere in history it's the powerful and the rich who are remembered better and for longer, if not exclusively, when Pompeii was buried the same fate struck everything and everyone: the villas and the brothels, the patricians and their slaves, and not only the respective belongings were preserved, but also their writings: so the Villa of the Papyri in Hercolaneum has provided us with the only surviving library of antiquity, but just as valuable are the inscriptions recovered on the walls of the cities condemned by Vesuvius, recording the habits, the language, the sexual mores and the ethnic makeup of the lower classes, as well as details of their professions and the going price of a loaf of bread, or oral sex.

So Pompeii is both a specific ancient city, the concrete place where you can stand and trace with your fingers the grooves left by the wheels of two thousand years-old chariots, and a vast social document, a text to read past lives into. It is the immersive, experiential museum of itself and of its era.

And then there are those body casts. You might know the ingenious story behind them: during the second full century of excavations, roughly 150 years ago, lead archaeologist Giuseppe Fiorelli figured out that the hollow cavities found in the compacted ash layer of the materials that covered the city must have been left by the decomposed remains of people, animals and plants. He ordered therefore that vertical holes be drilled in the sections due to be excavated and that plaster be poured into each hole, so that when the diggers reached one of the cavities they’d find a solid statue of whatever it was that had died on that particular spot. Thus Pompeii, which until that point had been a ghost town, slowly became populated again by people and their pets, each of them captured in the act of taking their last breath of an air that would literally solidify in their lungs. They are heart-rending to behold: people crawling up to each other, perhaps for one final moment of comfort, prisoners clawing at their shackles, a dog pulling at its chain. But what is perhaps most extraordinary about these figures is that they are not in fact proper human or animal remains: they are simulacra, virtual holders of the space once occupied by living things.

As in Brendon Wilkinson’s Meat Dust, here too the human body becomes a sign to be read into the landscape, a meaning to be abstracted from the physical environment; and it takes humans to reactivate those meanings, as we do when we visit Pompeii or design exhibitions about it, for otherwise the empty city would be just an unlikely and temporary rearrangement of minerals.

Alan Weisman’s book The World Without Us entertains just this kind of idea. Asks Weisman: if people were to suddenly disappear from the face of the earth, say due to a super-deadly pathogen, what would happen to our built environments, our artifacts and every other outward sign that we once were? What is fascinating about his account is precisely that it requires that we think about all of these things - the landmarks, the art, the Great Wall of China - not as things endowed with meaning and history, but as physical objects vulnerable in varying degree to the surrounding environment. It turns out that the great suspension bridges, the underground railway systems, they’d be amongst the first ones to go - a reminder of the remarkable amount of tending that they need - while skyscrapers would last less than most low-rises. The Great Wall wouldn’t fare well either:
A pastiche of rammed earth, stones, fired brick, timbers, and even glutinous rice used as mortar paste, without human maintenance it is defenseless against tree roots and water—and the highly acidic rain produced by an industrializing Chinese society isn't helping. Yet without that society, it will steadily melt away until just the stones remain. (173)

When The History Channel set about charting this fascinating post-history of decay, it went about the task with its customary ham-fistedness, which is a shame really since the visuals of Life After People are quite impressive. But the fundamental misunderstanding of Weisman’s premise begins before the credits of episode one have even finished rolling: what will become, asks Dramatic Voiceover Guy, ‘of Man’s great attempts at immortality?’ And if that is the question, the answer is straightforward: they will all cease to exist the second that people are gone, for without us our things make no sense. It’s what Jameson describes as the meaningless materiality of the body and nature versus the meaning endowment of history and the social. When the day comes there will be no immortality, just things.

The Pompeians really did disappear in less than twenty-four hours, their city turned into a barren and utterly a-human landscape. We owe their recovery to our understanding of those man-made forms. As in that famous saying of Michelangelo’s, that sculpting is all about chiselling away the excess stone from a block of marble to reveal the figure within, so too we rediscovered Pompeii because we knew how to imagine it first.

A Day in Pompeii
will be showing at Te Papa until Anzac Day.