Primus the guard dog is the guide on the family trail
Primus the guard dog is the guide on the family trail
Wall painting of the baker Terentius Neo and his wife. From the House of
Terentius Neo, Pompeii. AD 50–79. ©Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni
Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei
Wall painting of the baker Terentius Neo and his wife. From the House of Terentius Neo, Pompeii. AD 50–79. ©Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei

Life and death: Pompeii and Herculaneum

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Kids in Museum volunteer Caroline Marcus visited the Life and Death exhibition at the British Museum. She found plenty to fascinate kids and adults alike…

It’s impossible to picture the night the volcano Vesuvius erupted in AD 79. It’s unimaginable to feel the terror experienced by the people, rich and poor, living side by side in the Roman towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum, killed by this unexpected natural disaster. But don’t let this disturbing topic put you off bringing kids to visit the exhibition. The everyday ‘stuff of life’ displayed gives us a glimpse into a vanished world, revealing fascinating stories of ordinary people on an extraordinary day.

If you learned Latin at school, brush up on names as you wander into each room of a Roman villa. Cave canem! Beware of the dog you encounter in the mosaic made of lots of tiny pieces of stone. It depicts a lively guard dog which once protected the entrance to a house. Sadly it was found in the same home as the cast of a real dog, one of the first objects you see in the exhibition. The same dog appears as Primus, the kids’ guide in the lively family trail available on entry to the exhibition.

I was enchanted by this beautiful and powerful double portrait of Terentus Neo and his wife. It gives us a glimpse of how they used to live and their hobbies. They wear fine clothes and fashionable hairstyles and perhaps the writing objects they hold show their interest in learning.

It was the remains of food that moved me. The round bread on a plate divided into triangular pieces, the figs and a bottle still filled with olive oil – all evidence of final meals prepared before the eruption now frozen in time and a strong reminder of life’s joy and struggles. I wasn’t keen to try the fattened fried dormice, a Roman treat.

Be warned that there are some rather sexually explicit objects on display and also some casts which  children may find upsetting. The exhibition ends with a cast showing a family of two adults and two children, huddled together under the stairs in their last moments. It was poignant and powerful, showing hope and life cut off in prime. The family trail sensitively reassures kids, explaining that many people did survive and made new lives for themselves nearby.

I highly recommend this exhibition giving a fascinating glimpse of lost life- powerful, poignant, surprising and sensitively presented and plenty for all the family to enjoy and discuss.

Life and death: Pompeii and Herculaneum is on at the British Museum until 29 September 2013. Entry is £15, free to under-16s. Book in advance.

2 Responses

  1. marc gordon Says:

    excellent review. it sounds like an amazing exhibition and well worth going to.

  2. Rebecca Mileham Says:

    I tried out the trail too, and even though the exhibition was packed, we still managed to find all the items mentioned. This is testament to the thought that’s gone into it all – Primus the dog to spot on the labels, not too many items to locate, and things really worth seeing when you find them (like the graffiti scratched onto the painting which you might not have spotted otherwise).

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