British Museum blog

Telling the human story of Pompeii and Herculaneum

Telling the human story of Pompeii and HerculaneumVanessa Baldwin, exhibition project curator, British Museum

Many of the objects on display in the exhibition Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum, are not artefacts, they are people’s possessions. The people living in these two cities saw them and used them every day; they commissioned them or bought them for each other, and for themselves.

After years of researching, planning, designing and building, the exhibition is now open and it’s all about the people – people going through their daily lives with no idea of what was coming; the volcanic eruption in AD 79 that destroyed their cities, their lives over in an instant.

My favourite object, at the moment – because it does change from moment to moment – is a marble plaque from Herculaneum. It was set up between two houses and on one side it reads: ‘this is the property of Marcus Nonius Dama, private and in perpetuity’. And on the other side it reads, ‘this is the wall of Julia, private and in perpetuity’.

Marcus and Julia were ex-slaves, and they were living next door to each other. They must have had some sort of dispute about the boundary between their houses and this plaque was set up to resolve it. The extraordinarily human stories like this one are what I love most in the exhibition: to know people’s names, know who they were living next door to, and how they might have lived.

Seeing the trucks full of objects arriving from Italy really took our breath away. To then see them emerge from their crates to become part of a design that we’d only ever seen on paper has been the most special experience.

Over the 15 months I’ve been working on the exhibition, it has been a privilege to share the process of staging an exhibition with the curator Paul Roberts and the many fantastic people in the Museum who’ve worked alongside us. To go from object research and selection to their arrival and installation has been a whirlwind that I’ll never forget.

And now we get to share the stories, the objects and the people of Pompeii and Herculaneum with everyone.

Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum is open from 28 March 2013.

The exhibition is sponsored by Goldman Sachs.
In collaboration with Soprintendenza Speciale per I Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei.

Tweet using #PompeiiExhibition and @britishmuseum

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33 Responses - Comments are closed.

  1. I was at the Weds night preview, and feel honoured to have heard Paul Roberts’ talk about the show. I loved the paintings- can you explain how they survived the burning temperatures when the pigments and egg binder must be vulnerable to charring?


    • Richard – thanks for your comment and your question.

      When the pigments and the binder are mixed together to make the paint a chemical reaction occurs that bonds them, so the parts are not individually affected during the eruption. The only pigment that is affected by the high temperatures is yellow ochre, which turns to red above 300 degrees Celsius. Scorch marks are sometimes visible on the walls of the cities where fire has directly touched them, but otherwise the frescoes are miraculously unaffected.

      Paul Roberts, British Museum


  2. marlberg says:

    I look forward to seeing the exhibit soon. I hope it will both complement and extend upon the ‘Pompeii Revisited’ exhibit at the Academia Italiana in 1992.




  4. ritaroberts says:

    Many thanks to the British Museum and staff for the work put into this project. Allowing us to see the tragic story of the poor people buried alive in Pompeii. Such a sad story.


  5. it’s a very interesting exhibition. It’s so impressive to see the artefacts from pompeii, which give such a vivid impression of the life in pompei and herculaneum as example for the life in ancient rome in general.


  6. Cathy Macgregor says:

    Very fortunate to be invited to a preview of this superb exhibition. Off to see Pompeii and Hercuaneum next month. Excellent and exciting taster.


  7. Kate says:

    I am so looking forward to visiting this Exhibition; I have a fascination for Roman history, both Republic and Empire, but it’s the lives of the ordinary people, not the lawmakers and generals that draw me closest. Women like me, wives and mothers, just living their lives as best they can. Yes, Pompeii and Herculaneum are ancient huge tragedies, but they are also tale after tale of small lives, interrupted.


  8. hspheritage says:

    I’m hoping to go on Sunday – I really can’t wait!!!


  9. Tracey Springthorpe says:

    I will be visiting weekend 12th-14th April, I cannot wait words cannot describe how fantastic this is thanks to all who made this exhibition possible you’ve made my year. :-)


  10. we are coming to London shortly but all the tickets are booked up are ther any tickets released on a morning for that day?


    • Tombo4 says:

      I was so keen to see it that I bought an annual membership on the day. About £50 for one person, and another £25 for a guest ticket. And then you can walk to the front of the queue and go in. Money well spent.


    • Pauline – thanks for your question.

      Each day, 500 tickets for that day will be available to purchase at the Ticket Desk in the Great Court. They are likely to sell out quickly so do come early to avoid disappointment. You may also need to wait between your ticket purchase and your timed exhibition entry. More information about tickets here

      David Prudames, British Museum


    • Pauline, I went yesterday in the hope of getting tickets on the day. joined the queue at 9.30am and got tickets for 10.10am. 500 tickets are released on a daily basis, but the earlier you get to the museum the better chance you have of getting them. The exhibition was superb! Do not miss it!


  11. Henrietta Fudakowski says:

    I went on Easter Monday when it was very full indeed, made worse by the fact that a number of people had been allowed in with very large rucksacks, when they turned round they could not see how many people they hurt with their luggage. I do think staff might be told not to allow people with very large rucksacks into the exhibition.
    I went again a couple of days later when it was less full, and really enjoyed the exhibition.


  12. Do you know if this exibition will oome to America, I am anxious to see it.


  13. fran acheson says:

    Visited the exhibition today – it’s fabulous…and at the end, heartbreaking. Watch out for the most wonderful colander ever – a work of beauty and proudly marked by the maker. And the magnificent sea life mosaic.


  14. Vivian Steele says:

    When does the exhibition finish? Will be in London at start of June, 2013


  15. skibeaky says:

    I drove my daughter mad by saying, “Incredible” every few moments, but the entire exhibition was just that. I also loved the colander, but it was the food that brought a lump to my throat – evidence of meals prepared for but never eaten. And that bread!!! I saw the Pompeii exhibition in the 1970s, but don’t remember the human element coming through as strongly.
    My thanks and admiration go to all involved in bringing this exhibition to London.

    One question: I understand HOW the plaster casts were made, but how did the archaeologists know where the ‘voids’ were?


    • I’m so glad you enjoyed the exhibition, thank you for your comments.

      Quite simply, they didn’t! Locating the voids was a matter of chance; the archaeologists would just come across the holes when they were excavating. They would not have known exactly what they were going to uncover until they had excavated around the hardened plaster form.

      Vanessa Baldwin, British Museum


      • skibeaky says:

        Thank you for your reply, I have always wondered how they knew a hole was worth filling with plaster (or resin); presumably the ash was so fine that there would be no other reason for a hole to be left?


  16. David says:

    I cannot wait to see the exhibition. This post has made me even more excited. Thank you.


  17. Emlyn says:

    We visited today (April 19) and it’s brilliant. We saw Pompeii and Herculaneum a few years ago but the museum in Naples was closed on the day we went there, so this exhibition made up for that in part. However the exhibition stands alone as a superb piece of storytelling. Now we want to return to Italy to see them again. This could have been an expensive day!


  18. Emlyn says:

    At the end of the exhibition is a list of relevant items in the main collection but I can’t find this on the website. Is it possible to obtain a copy please?


  19. Diane Thalmann says:

    Congratulations to the British Museum for this stupendous exhibition. Bringing these two tragic towns back to life in the form of the wonderfully exhibited items is a tribute to the many unfortunate people who died in such a horrific way. Highly recommended, and not to be missed.I may be tempted to make a second visit!


  20. Lynn Dorling says:

    Do I gather that the exhibition is in the reading room? I am hoping to bring a small group but one lady is quite infirm and is worried about how much walking there will be. I have assured her you have portable stools and wheelchair available – would it be necessary to book a wheelchair?


  21. I am so looking forward to visiting the exhibition.
    Right now I should be prepping an answer on the Aeneid for my Classics exam. I’m a mature student – supposedly! I’ve booked the trip to London to mark the end of my undergraduate days. Funds are tight, so this is the closest I’ll get to Pompeii and Herculaneum for a while.
    I’m visiting the day that I fly back to Ireland. Hope my suitcase will be acceptable at the cloakroom!


  22. James Muir says:

    Having been fortunate to visit both Pompeii and Herculaneum twice in fifty years it was great to view the beautiful exhibits and intersting displays of the exhibition. But my wife and I and a number of our mature friends with us were frustrated by the small size, small print and very low and back-breaking positioning of the exhibit lables. Not only did we have to bend down closely and repeatedly but positioned as they are they were often obscured by other people. Surely exhibition designers must take into conderation the older age and physical infirmites (aching backs and poor eyesight) of many of those attending and should “trial” layouts etc. beforehand


  23. Pete Rowberry says:

    We had to give up our tickets for the exhibition next Tuesday, because of family commitments, but it persuaded us to become “Friends” of the Museum, which will give us the opportunity to visit on more than one occasion. I am so looking forward to it, after seeing Pompeii and Herculaneum during our holiday in Italy earlier this year.


  24. Janet Christmas says:

    Have visited exhibition today and was fascinated. Amazing exhibits & excellent commentary but why,oh why are the labels so small & so low down? Just two people can read them at a time by bending down. Surely they could be larger or you could supply copies in each room to be read & returned. ( I saw 2 large print books at the entrance but did not feel I could take one in case they were needed by someone with limited sight.)


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