Step inside the new Pompeii: In the Shadow of the Volcano exhibition at the Royal Ontario Museum and immerse yourself in the art, culture, and wealth of an ancient Roman city. But the fascination comes with a sense of foreboding. After all, everyone knows what happened to Pompeii. In 79 AD, it vanished when long-dormant Mount Vesuvius erupted, burying the city in fiery molten ash, poisonous gas, and pumice. Thousands of residents died from the pyrotechnic blasts of extreme heat and lay entombed in debris until archaeologists excavated the site in the 18th century.
But those macabre images fade away as you explore Garfield Weston Exhibition Hall, where 200 artifacts take you inside the everyday moments of the people who once lived, loved, and thrived in the fated city. The Royal Ontario Museum‘s curatorial team worked with Italy’s Superintendence for the Archaeological Heritage of Naples, and the Special Superintendence for Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Stabiae to choose the most evocative objects from the archaeological site. To add to the intimacy, the exhibition is set up as neighbourhoods, with each revealing different insights into Pompeii’s society. In one section, an intricate mosaic depicts a wealthy matron with pearl jewelry and a refined expression. In another, a gold bracelet shaped like a serpent gleams, just waits to be slipped on the slim arm of a youthful fashionista. A well-preserved gladiator helmet hints at the life-and-death battles waged in Pompeii’s amphitheatre. In the “Sex in the City” section tucked in a corner, laugh out loud at the risqué frescoes and marble statues with generous appendages on prominent display. You might want to steer the little ones away from this section unless you’re prepared to deliver some impromptu sex ed.
As you walk through the exhibition, past gardens draped with trailing vines, it’s almost imperceptible, but note how the light begins to fade from bright to dark, mirroring the cloud of ash that first appeared in Pompeii in the early afternoon on the day of the eruption. Amid a backdrop of startling rumbling, you can learn the science behind the power of volcanoes. Yet it’s a survivor’s eyewitness account—by Gaius Caecilius Cilo, better known as Pliny the Younger, a magistrate of Rome—that captures you in the drama of history. Some people fled at the first sight of ash, while others remained. By the next morning, escape was impossible. Those who remained perished.
Just as you begin wondering what choice you might have made, you encounter the most breathtaking and eerie apparition. Silhouetted against an animation of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius is a larger-than-life bronze statue of a young woman, frozen in the act of tying her robe. She peers at you with luminescent glass eyes as clouds of smoke roll down the volcano’s slopes.
Your instinct might be to huddle up the family and run for the hills, but you don’t want to miss the final exhibition. All the theatre and fascination of science and history culminate in the actions preserved by incredibly dynamic plaster casts. These vivid images probably won’t haunt your dreams, but they might inspire you to hug the kids extra tight at tuck-in time tonight. Pompeii: In the Shadow of the Volcano is a fantastic educational experience for the entire family, and makes for an interesting and thought-provoking adventure at the Royal Ontario Museum.
Pompeii: In the Shadow of the Volcano will be on exhibition at the Royal Ontario Museum through January 3, 2016.