Last week, the Fleeman family ventured to Ancient Rome with a trip to the California Science Center for their special Pompeii exhibit. I know embarrassingly little about Rome for a history major, as evidenced by the following conversation:
Katie: I wasn’t really planning on going to Greece during my Europe trip.
Scott: Pompeii is in Italy. Even babies know that.
Ten points to the younger brother.
We encountered quite a bit of traffic on the way to Exposition Park: Turns out we managed to book tickets on the exact same day as KCON, and the area was overrun with K-Pop fans. But we were quickly ushered in when we mentioned Pompeii, and they even halved the temporarily inflated parking price!
After discovering that the museum has subterranean parking, we headed the Science Center. Aside from special exhibits like Pompeii, the Science Center is a free museum just right near the Natural History Museum, the Coliseum and U$C. The Expo Line takes you right there. It’s fairly new, in that I remember the current incarnation opening when I was in elementary school. (Okay so maybe it’s not actually that new.) They have numerous regular exhibits, such as the giant animatronic body simulator Tess who was totally the awesome new thing when I was eight. The California Science Center is also the final home for the space shuttle Endeavor, which is also essentially free to view but you need a reservation (there’s a $2 reservation fee). Then, they host special exhibits, such as the one that brought the Fleeman family all the way to Trojan-adjacent territory.
“Pompeii: The Exhibition” (tag-lined “But what nature destroyed, it also preserved”) began with the opportunity to take a green screen photo. My brother vetoed this idea and the rest of us overruled him. They had numerous props, so of course my dad and I went for the plastic swords.
The first thing you see is a nude statue, well-lit and basking in all his ancient Roman glory. Several small displays surrounded this marble hunk detailing the Roman hearth and home. My audio guide wand, which featured several erudite English men and women, promptly ran out of batteries. I went to exchange it and promptly lost my family.
The exhibit continued to examine the Roman home, expanding bit-by-bit as you went room to room. One display showed all the statues of family gods – called Lares – and there were numerous other statues and paintings along the way.
I eventually reached a bottleneck: Through some questionable design decision that was probably great in theory but poor in execution, we all had to go through one narrow walkway – displaying Pompeiian dinner tables – to get from the “Roman Home” room to the next stage of the exhibit. Along the way I managed to snap another picture of a nude statue.
After traversing the dinner tables of (congestion) doom, I walked into a room about the public sphere of Pompeiian life. Here, they talked about the cooking, the market, the fishing, etc. Apparently, the ancient Romans liked to slather everything in some type of fermented fish sauce. With soothing music in the background and lyrical narration on my now working audio guide, the exhibit painted a calm, luxurious image of pre-Vesuvius Pompeii.
Throughout the exhibit, however, the English persons periodically mentioned a bit of background on how this idyllic paradise operated. “The slaves would go to the market…” “The slaves would work in the kitchen…” One sign offered a glimpse into what that actually meant:
A BUSTLING METROPOLIS
Pompeii was a city of successful entrepreneurs with an economy dependent on slaves. BUSINESS was a respectable and often lucrative profession. Slaves, who made up a third of the population, received wages and could save to buy their freedom and become citizens. Some freedmen and women, LEBERTUS or LIBERTA, became affluent property owners; others help key positions in the government bureaucracy.
While I was interested to see this, I felt like the plaque actually brought up more questions than it answered. The same with the following room, which talked about slaves being gladiators. Of course, delving into a nuanced look at stratification within Pompeiian society would disrupt the “Idyllic society ripped by tragedy” narrative they had going on. But the term “slave” carries heavy connotations for any American visitor, and it seemed almost inappropriate to overlook this.
Then again, perhaps I’m anomalous in that I’d rather learn about the Roman geopolitical structure and consequent economic implications instead of look at more antique urns.
One surprisingly present and unsurprisingly popular room was about brothels in Pompeii. Lit a sultry red, the room featured sexually explicit tchotchkes and an incredibly sad video about prostitutes in Pompeii. According to the exhibit, the Pompeiians would carve penises into walls and whatnot for good luck, but I like to think it was just something some drunk Pompeiians did when they ran out of places to draw on their friends who fell asleep with their sandals still on.
Notable patrons included a bunch of guys who were uncomfortably psyched that there was a brothel room and parents with small children who neglected to read the warning before walking in.
After the brothel came what I thought was the most awesome part. We went in groups into a dark room, where they played a time lapse film recreating the eruption of Vesuvius. There were strobe lights and fog machines (lots and lots of fog) and at the end of the film the screen rose and we were face to face with a cast of a Pompeiian body as an enthusiastic/awesome gallery guide named Roger narrated the explosion – a day so horrible “not even the sun wanted to be there” – and warned us all that another Vesuvius eruption is due.
As I wandered around the model casts, I eavesdropped on Roger talking with another patron. She asked if Pompeii was something other Romans remembered – why did it take until 1740 to uncover the city? Roger likened it to the Charles Manson murders: A great tragedy that gripped many right after it happened, but started to fade from common memory after only a few decades.
We had to turn in our audio guides after the excavation room. The foyer between the main exhibit and the gift shop had neat array of science-related displays. There was a wall display about different types of volcanoes, and you could set off a virtual volcano and watch what happened on the inside. I watched a family play around with the arch-building kit, where kids (or the adult in charge) could learn about architecture by building foam arches. There was also a wall talking about preserving the frescos.
I wish they had dedicated more to the content in the last two rooms. For one thing, the body casts were absolutely heartbreaking. There was one cast of a child’s body that just really got me. It was also a wee bit terrifying – it served as a harsh reminder that natural disasters could occur at any time and absolutely devastate an entire population.
One of the things I loved about the Science Center’s recent Cleopatra exhibit was how much space they dedicated to talking about their excavations. With the Pompeii exhibit, I wanted to learn more about how they discovered the site, what tools they used, how it has changed over the years. I get where they were going – trying to show up a day in the life of Pompeii – but it felt like they could have cut down the pre-Vesuvius part maybe 30% and dedicated more to the archaeology and geology.
And of course, missing from the entire event was the Time Lord-related explanation for the destruction of Pompeii:
Overall, it’s always fun to check out the special exhibits at the Science Center. If you’re into Ancient Rome, it’s a neat one to check out!
To see “Pompeii: The Exhibition”, reserve tickets at https://www.californiasciencecenter.org/navigation/OmniTickets/redirect-pompeii.html. Check out RetailMeNot for available discounts.