Saturday, March 5, 2011

Pompeii in Times Square: “Pompeii the Exhibit: Life and Death in the Shadow of Vesuvius,” Discovery Times Square, New York City

"Experience Pompeii before and after the epic eruption 2,000 years ago. Imagine the moment their world vanished and discover the miraculous artifacts unearthed since. Witness the life and death of those frozen in time by ash - including the largest collection of body casts ever presented.
  • Over 250 artifacts – includes some never-before-seen objects and the largest collection of body casts ever on display including a dramatic skeleton collection
  • A brand-new, immersive movie experience depicting a timelapsed representation starting from the moment of Vesuvius’ massive explosion"
--From the “Pompeii the Exhibit" Website

More than a museum, Discovery Times Square is New York’s destination for discovery through unique and immersive exhibits
--Website for Discovery Times Square

"There is a lot of traffic these days in well-preserved bodies, human and otherwise. They are sliced and pickled for artistic effect or uncannily dissected and plasticized, with every blood vessel visible. They have toured the world, wrapped and mummified in the manner of ancient Egypt, or have been displayed, more modestly preserved by the dry desert sands of the Silk Road. And there are many, many more mummies yet to come.

Why this onslaught of the almost-living dead in museums? Are we latter-day Ezekiels seeking prophetic messages from ancient skeletal remnants? Has the technology used to prepare the dead for world travel suddenly advanced? Or has the need for income by the overseers of mummies suddenly increased?"

From "When the Dead Arise and Head to Times Square," Edward Rothstein, the New York Times
“Pompeii the Exhibit: Life and Death in the Shadow of Vesuvius”--a new exhibition at Discovery Times Square--activates the same tension between spectacle and education, prurience and propriety, which was exploited to such great financial reward by Gunther von Hangens in Body Worlds and which characterized many 19th Century popular amusements such as tourist visits to the Paris Morgue, popular anatomical museums, and the scores of death- and destruction-themed spectaculars to be found at Coney Island in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries.

In fact, "Pompeii the Exhibit" of 2011 has much in common with a particular Coney Island attraction of 1889--the spectacular “The Last Days of Pompeii”--if not in the particulars than in the shared drive to offer the paying public a fully immersive recreation of the destruction of Pompeii, and in their use of over-the-top hyperbolic detail in describing the wonders of their respective exhibitions.

"The Last Days of Pompeii" of 1889--an immersive spectacle that combined historical vignette, theatre performance, and a pyrotechnic display in recreating the destruction of Pompeii by the fires of Vesuvius--boasted in its press about the number and variety of its cast (over 400 people! "a ballet troupe of 36 dancers trained by Batiste Cherotte... a male chorus..., soldiers, acrobats, jugglers, tumblers, [and] wire-walkers"!)

2011's "Pompeii the Exhibit," on the other hand, focuses on the numbers and authenticity of its artifacts (over 250! Some never seen before! The largest number of body casts ever on display!), bringing to mind the press for such Coney Island Spectaculars such as "The Boer War" (Real British and Boer veterans!) and the "Streets of Delhi" (300 authentic Indian natives in costume! Elephants! Camels! Horses!). To further blur the line between "legitimate museum" and popular attraction, "Pompeii the Exhibit" is hosted at a popular exhibition hall sponsored by a television channel--Discovery Times Square--rather than an "ordained" museum such as AMNH; Also, Pompeii the Exhibit" provides visitors not just artifacts and other traditional ways of experiencing history but also what its website describes as a "brand-new, immersive movie experience" reenacting "the moment of Vesuvius’ massive explosion."

So what to make of it all? I see this new exhibition as excitingly in the tradition of 19th Century popular educational amusements--dime museums, popular anatomical museums, and Coney Island recreations--spaces where spectacle and education, prurience and propriety, coexisted for mass consumption. Fun, didactic, spectacular, and a resounding and thoughtful endorsement in today's Times to boot. I, for one, can't wait to go see it.

You can read a fascinating review of "Pompeii the Exhibit"--as quoted above--by Edward Rothstein in today's New York Times by clicking here. You can find out more about Coney Island's “The Last Days of Pompeii" by clicking here. You can find out more about "Pompeii the Exhibit" by clicking here.

Thanks so much to GF Newland for alerting me to this!

Image: Ruth Fremson/The New York Times
Plaster casts made from hollowed-out molds of rock, where bodies had been captured a moment before they ceased to be.

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