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?

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    • 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

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  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.

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  3. THIS LOOKS AMAZING WHAT A WONDERFUL ACHIEVEMENT.

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  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.

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  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.

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  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.

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  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.

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  8. hspheritage says:

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

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  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. :-)

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  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?

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    • 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.

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    • 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

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    • 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!

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  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.

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

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  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.

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  14. Vivian Steele says:

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

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  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?

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    • 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

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      • 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?

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  16. David says:

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

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  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!

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  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?

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  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!

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  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?

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  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!

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  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

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  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.

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  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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For our final #MuseumInstaSwap post we’re highlighting the 'Make Do and Mend' campaign of the Second World War, as told by our partner @ImperialWarMuseums in their #FashionontheRation exhibition.

The campaign was launched to encourage people to make their existing supplies of clothes last longer. Posters and leaflets were circulated with advice on subjects including how to prevent moth damage to woollens, how to make shoes last longer or how to care for different fabrics. As the war went on, buying new was severely restricted by coupon limits and no longer an option for many people. The ability to repair, renovate and make one's own clothes became increasingly important. Although shoppers would have to hand over coupons for dressmaking fabric as well as readymade clothes, making clothes was often cheaper and saved coupons. ‘Make Do and Mend’ classes took place around the country, teaching skills such as pattern cutting. Dress makers and home sewers often had to be experimental in their choice of fabrics. Despite disliking much of the official rhetoric to Make Do and Mend, many people demonstrated great creativity and adaptability in dealing with rationing. Individual style flourished. Shortages necessitated imaginative use of materials, recycling and renovating of old clothes and innovative use of home-made accessories, which could alter or smarten up an outfit. Many women used furnishing fabrics for dressmaking until these too were rationed. Blackout material, which did not need points, was also sometimes used. Parachute silk was highly prized for underwear, nightclothes and wedding dresses.

We've really enjoyed working with and learning from our friends at @imperialwarmuseums this week. You can catch up on all our posts and discover many more stories from London’s museums with #MuseumInstaSwap. © IWM (Art.IWM PST 4773 For #MuseumInstaSwap we’re discovering the street style of the Second World War in the #FashionontheRation exhibition at @ImperialWarMuseums. In this archive photo a female member of the Air Raid Precautions staff applies her lipstick between emergency calls.

In wartime Britain it was unfashionable to be seen wearing clothes that were obviously showy, yet women were frequently implored not to let 'standards' slip too far. There was genuine concern that a lack of interest in personal appearance could be a sign of low morale, which could have a detrimental impact on the war effort. The government's concern for the morale of women was a major factor in the decision to continue the manufacture of cosmetics, though in much reduced quantities. Make-up was never rationed, but was subject to a luxury tax and was very expensive. Many cosmetics firms switched some of their production to items needed for the war effort. Coty, for example, were known for their face powder and perfumes but also made army foot powder and anti-gas ointment. Make-up and hair styles took on an increased importance and many women went to great lengths to still feel well-dressed and stylish even if their clothes were last season's, their stockings darned and accessories home-made. As with clothing, women found creative ways around shortages, with beetroot juice used for a splash of lip colour and boot polish passing for mascara.

Discover more stories from London’s museums with #MuseumInstaSwap © IWM (D 176) In the @ImperialWarMuseums exhibition ‘Fashion on the Ration: 1940s street style’ we can see how men and women found new ways to dress while clothing was rationed. Displays of original clothes from the era, from military uniforms to utility underwear, reveal what life was really like on the home front in wartime Britain.

Despite the limitations imposed by rationing, clothing retailers sought to retain and even expand their customer base during the Second World War. Britain's high street adapted in response to wartime conditions, and this was reflected in their retail ranges. The government intervened in the mass manufacture of high street fashions with the arrival of the Utility clothing scheme in 1942. Shoppers carefully spent their precious clothing coupons and money on new clothes to make sure their purchases would be suitable across spring, summer and autumn and winter. Despite the restrictions, the war and civilian austerity did not put an end to creative design, commercial opportunism or fashionable trends on the British home front.

#FashionontheRation exhibition runs @imperialwarmuseums until 31 August.

Discover more stories from London’s museums with #MuseumInstaSwap. For our final day of #MuseumInstaSwap we’re learning about the Second World War @ImperialWarMuseums, and discovering the impact of the war on ordinary people. 
Clothes were rationed in Britain from 1 June 1941. This limited the amount of new garments people could buy until 1949, four years after the war's end. The British government needed to reduce production and consumption of civilian clothes to safeguard raw materials and release workers and factory space for war production. As with food rationing, which had been in place since 1940, one of the reasons for introducing civilian clothes rationing was to ensure fairness. Rationing sought to ensure a more equal distribution of clothing and improve the availability of garments in the shops.

As this poster shows, the rationing scheme worked by allocating each type of clothing item a 'points' value which varied according to how much material and labour went into its manufacture. Eleven coupons were needed for a dress, two needed for a pair of stockings, and eight coupons required for a man's shirt or a pair of trousers. Women's shoes meant relinquishing five coupons, and men's footwear cost seven coupons. When buying new clothes, the shopper had to hand over coupons with a 'points' value as well as money. Every adult was initially given an allocation of 66 points to last one year, but this allocation shrank as the war progressed. © IWM (Art.IWM PST 8293) This week on @instagram we’ve joined up with other London museums to highlight our shared stories. Our partner is @imperialwarmuseums, whose incredible collection brings people’s experiences of modern war and conflict to life. Follow #MuseumInstaSwap to discover some of the intriguing historical connections we have found, as well as insights into everyday life during wartime. As part of our #MuseumInstaSwap with @ImperialWarMuseums, we’ve been given special access to the Churchill War Rooms – located deep below the streets of Westminster.
This is Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s bedroom, which includes his private desk, briefcase and papers, his bed and chamber pot and even an original cigar! The bedroom is located close to the Map Room, keeping Churchill as close as possible to the epicentre of Cabinet War Rooms.
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Discover more stories from London’s museums with #MuseumInstaSwap
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