A man clambers over a fence in a desperate attempt to escape. A mother is frozen in time forever, comforting her baby. A scared dog twists into a strange contortion. These are images from a natural disaster captured, not on film, but in lava, ash and mud.
“When I was working on exhibits in the past, the most frequently asked question I got was, ‘When will you have something on Pompeii?’ So, when the opportunity came to show this, it was the perfect time,” said Sari Custer, vice president of curiosity at Arizona Science Center.
You read that right: Custer is vice president of curiosity. The position was invented earlier this year by the center in recognition of the fact that museum visitors want to see and learn certain things. And Pompeii has topped the list for a long time.
“It’s timely right now because of the natural disasters happening around us—not volcanoes, but hurricanes and fires. So, it’s almost hard to talk about it, because it’s exciting but you want to be respectful. This exhibition connects the event of Pompeii to our guests in a meaningful way.”
Pompeii: The Exhibition, which runs through May 28 at the Science Center, examines Pompeii before and after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius on August 24, 79 A.D. buried the city. Ash and debris from Vesuvius hit the population of the Roman town that day, it caught people off guard. As they lay down in fear or attempted to escape, the debris suddenly enveloped them, capturing people in whatever pose they happened to be holding. For centuries, the town lay buried.
By the time the site was finally excavated in the 1700s, the bodies had decayed, leaving hollowed-out shapes in the hardened earth. These became forms for the plaster body casts that were first shown in a private exhibit in Italy in 1777. The exhibition coming to Arizona Science Center has its home at the Naples National Archeological Museum in Italy.
The body casts capture people in a range of poses.
“When we’re scared we tend to flock together, so there are several of people clutching each other,” Custer said. “There’s a mother and a baby, and even a dog. The dog had been left behind, tied up, because those who fled didn’t know how devastating it would be, so they often left behind their valuables and their pets.”
The exhibition remembers the people of Pompeii, not only in their famous deaths, but in how they lived, as well. More than 200 artifacts from the busy trade and military center are on display, including wall-sized frescoes, mosaics, marble and bronze sculptures, musical instruments, jewelry and Roman coins. A small separate portion of the exhibit features erotic art in a replica of a Pompeii brothel. Parental guidance is advised for this separate section of the exhibition, which is not suitable for all ages.
Custer said the Pompeii show is the first of its kind locally, as well as one of the museum’s largest.
“To my knowledge, this is the first Pompeii exhibit to come to Phoenix, as well as one of the biggest exhibits of any kind we have ever hosted,” she said. “It’s beautiful and phenomenal, because you get the feeling that you’re back in time, experiencing what they experienced. You think, ‘Could this be me?’”
To get an idea of what it might feel like to experience a volcanic eruption, the exhibition also features a simulation in a 4-D theater, complete with seats that rock and roll as you smell the burning ash.
While the simulation is probably the only way any of us will know what a volcanic eruption is like, it’s not completely out of the realm of possibility that we could someday encounter the real thing.
“After all, we have a large volcano system here in Arizona, at San Francisco Peak,” she said. “Dormant doesn’t mean extinct.”