Birmingham Museum of Art: Pompeii Exhibition

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  • Topic: Pompeii, Pliny the Elder, Pliny the Younger
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  • Published : February 3, 2008
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Birmingham Museum of Art Presents:
Pompeii: Tales From An Eruption
"Many strange things happened to us there, and we had much to fear." –Pliny the Younger

The quote above comes to us from one of the letters of Pliny the Younger, the namesake of the man who was the commander of the Roman Fleet in 79 A.D. Pliny the Elder was last seen by his nephew as he prepared to sail across the Bay of Naples to Pompeii; the older man would perish in an attempt to rescue citizens of a coastal Italian town fated for obliteration before he boarded his ship.

Vesuvius erupted on Aug. 24, in 79 A.D., the day after the citizens of Pompeii would have celebrated the festival of Vulcanalia, making crafts by candlelight to honor the god of tools, smithing, fire and the forge. The fiery eruption of lava and volcanic stone continued all day and night through Aug. 25, covering Pompeii and the surrounding towns in a relentless rain of ash. In the neighboring settlements of Herculaneum, Terzigno, Moregine and Oplontis and the city of Pompeii itself, those who were unable to escape seem to have met death one of two ways – hot and fast, seared in an instant, scarcely conscious that the end had come, or slow and excruciating beyond comprehension, with each breath harder to take than the last. The eruption leveled all signs of life.

The younger Pliny's letters are a rarity – an eyewitness account of a disaster that is understood in the modern world largely through a desperate, if deliberate and methodical, groping. Archaeologists, adventurers, scholars and scavengers have all studied Pompeii and the other towns burned up and buried at the foot of Vesuvius. These places were forgotten for nearly 2,000 years then rediscovered by accident in the 18th century. After more than 200 years of continuous excavation, still only a fraction of the story is fully understood — and the digging for meaning is bound to continue for centuries.

"Pompeii: Tales from an Eruption" opened on Sunday, Oct. 14, at the Birmingham Museum of Art and will remain on display through Jan. 27, 2008. Only three U.S. cities will host the exhibition: It comes to Birmingham after a four-month stint at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago and before a three-month display at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts scheduled for 2008. Comprised of 500 works of art and relics, the exhibit is the largest collection of artifacts from Pompeii to ever leave Italy.

Terry Beckham, staff exhibition designer for the BMA, spent three years planning and designing the exhibition. "A show of this magnitude required that much time," Beckham says. "Another real challenge was the scale. Because the collection includes so many big things, we had to carefully consider how we would get them into the space as we were considering how to situate them in the space. "The collection also includes so many small things, so it was critical that those not be overshadowed," he continues. Beckham traveled to Chicago to see how the artifacts were displayed there, but he knew early on that his venue presented just as many challenges as the material did. "Since the Field is a natural history museum, their designer approached it really differently. I'm approaching this as an art exhibit. A part of that is making everything more precious. Everything is an art object, even if it is a spoon."

Ultimately, Beckham's approach would be to transform the museum's Asian art galleries into a 10,000-square foot showcase for classical Roman artifacts. Japanese folding wood cases were hidden by thin veneer, to create small arcades along the gallery walls. The massive Buddhist temple doors that stood at the center of the Asian galleries were cocooned by high, false walls, creating display space for Roman artifacts. The layout of the exhibit shows off the architectural and engineering flexibility of the museum. Part of a wall was knocked out to create a doorway between two galleries. (The wall yielded history of its own –...
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