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

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

Filed under: Exhibitions, Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum, , , , , , , ,

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, 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!


    • 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


  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.)


Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 14,952 other followers


Follow @britishmuseum on Twitter

British Museum on Instagram

Vanished beneath the waters of the Mediterranean, the lost cities of Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus lay at the mouth of the Nile. Over the last 20 years, world-renowned archaeologist Franck Goddio and his team have excavated spectacular underwater discoveries using the latest technologies. They will be seen alongside fascinating objects from major Egyptian museums for the first time in the UK in this blockbuster exhibition.

Book now for #SunkenCities, opening 19 May 2016

#archaeology #history #ancientegypt 
Christoph Gerigk © Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation Discover the remarkable relationship between the major ancient civilisations of Egypt and Greece, unveiled in our monumental new exhibition #SunkenCities – announced today! 300 outstanding objects will be brought together in this blockbuster exhibition, including many Egyptian objects shown in the UK for the first time. Preserved and buried under the sea for over a thousand years, the stunning objects range from magnificent colossal statues to intricate gold jewellery. They tell stories of political power and popular belief, myth and migration, gods and kings. Journey through centuries of encounters between two celebrated cultures, meeting iconic historical figures such as Alexander the Great, Cleopatra, Hadrian and Antinous on the way.

Book now for #SunkenCities, opening 19 May 2016

#archaeology #ancientegypt #history 
Christoph Gerigk © Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation We are delighted to announce our first major exhibition on underwater archaeology! Submerged under the sea for over a thousand years, two lost cities of ancient Egypt were recently rediscovered. Their amazing discovery is transforming our understanding of the deep connections between the great ancient civilisations of Egypt and Greece.

Book now for #SunkenCities, opening 19 May 2016
#archaeology #ancientegypt #history
Christoph Gerigk © Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation You can now discover thousands of British Museum objects in partnership with @googleartproject at We’ve asked staff members to highlight their favourites and explain what makes them special. Chris Spring, Curator of Africa Collections, describes why he finds the ‘Throne of weapons’ so powerful. ‘This war memorial celebrates the ordinary people of Mozambique, many of them unarmed, who stood up to a culture of violence. It represents both a human tragedy and a human triumph. The Throne's essential humanity is suggested right away by its anthropomorphic qualities - it has arms, legs, a back and most importantly a face - actually two faces. My first reaction was that these faces are crying in pain, though they could also be seen as smiling faces finally freed from conflict. These anthropomorphic qualities also link it immediately to the arts of Africa, in which non-figurative objects such as chairs, stools, weapons, pots etc are seen as - and described as - human beings. The Throne has toured the world, taking its message of peace to schools, churches, shopping centres and even prisons – and of course, to museums and galleries.’ #MuseumOfTheWorld We’re celebrating our partnership with @googleartproject, and have asked curators to tell us about their favourite objects. Hugo Chapman, Keeper of Prints and Drawings, explains why he chose this chalk drawing by Michelangelo. ‘One of the things I love about drawings is the way they sometimes allow a glimpse into the private, behind the scenes world of an artist, one unseen in finished works in paint or stone. An example of that is a red chalk drawing by Michelangelo of grotesque heads in red chalk that reveal that the Florentine Renaissance artist had a lively, if caustic, sense of humour. The three heads were probably drawn to amuse but at the same instruct his pupils, as the three studies show how slight changes can radically alter the reading of an image with the character and mood of each figure (paranoid anxiety; vacuous joy; and depressive gloom) signalled by the position and erectness of their donkey-like ears.  I wish my ears were as expressive.’ Discover many more incredible works of art in the Google Cultural Institute at

#Michelangelo #art To celebrate our partnership with @googleartproject, we’ve asked members of British Museum staff to highlight their favourite objects and explain what makes them special. Jill Cook, Deputy Keeper of Britain, Europe & Prehistory, chose this stone chopping tool from an early human campsite in Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania. ‘Holding this 2 million year old African tool in my hand I am reminded that whatever differences exist between people now, we are united by our common origin in Africa. The discovery of this piece by Louis Leakey in 1931 began to change our understanding of what makes us human. It illustrates the beginning of a transition from an ancestral ape that walked upright on two legs within the confines of a limited ecological niche to humans with more complex brains capable of changing and eventually dominating the world around us by making tools and weapons. This chopping tool is one of the seeds from which all human cultures and societies have grown.’ Discover the stories of thousands of objects in the Google Cultural Institute at


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 14,952 other followers

%d bloggers like this: