One of the most significant exhibitions ever to come to the Arizona Science Center is opening Nov. 18.
“Pompeii: The Exhibition” is a blockbuster show running through May 28, bringing to life the ill-fated Italian city that was devastated in 79 A.D. by the explosion of Mount Vesuvius. When excavators began unearthing the city in 1748, they discovered that Pompeii was surprisingly well-preserved.
This exhibition will feature more than 200 artifacts on loan mostly from the Naples National Archaeological Museum, including marble and bronze sculptures, frescoes, jewelry and mosaics, as well as body casts of victims from the explosion. Visitors will also get to experience a recreation of the disaster in the 4D theater.
“We’ve been working on trying to bring it to Phoenix for a couple years, and were finally able to secure it,” said Chevy Humphrey, president and CEO of the Arizona Science Center. “The historical significance as one of the most notable natural disasters will have people in awe. It’s relevant for all ages and interests.”
The exhibition premiered in 2013 in Philadelphia, and is a collaboration among Exhibitions International, the Pompeii historical site and Naples National Archaeological Museum. The 10,000-square foot exhibit offers guests a glimpse into the city before, during and after the disaster, and goes beyond just items in glass cases.
“The objects are fully stunning and remarkably well-preserved, and tell a story that is evergreen that people have been interested in for decades,” said Troy Collins, chief marketing officer and VP of business development for Exhibitions International. “We create environments and immerse guests in them…It offers guests the opportunity to find themselves back in Pompeii right before and after the disaster.”
Visitors first watch a video that introduces them to Pompeii. After, they explore a Roman villa: walking through the garden, dining room, kitchen and out the back of the house. They then encounter a marketplace, temple, theater and baths. Along the way are the many artifacts, including a bronze sculpture of young Apollo, a fresco depicting a flying priestess and an elaborate bronze gladiator helmet.
A traveling exhibition of this magnitude can be challenging. Brown said there are eight 53-foot trailers used to transport the scenic set pieces, AV elements and artifacts.
“We take incredible care to ensure everything is cared for the moment we take them out of the cases,” Brown said. “Three couriers from Naples travel with the exhibition to oversee the process.”
The artifacts are packed in custom crates. Since they are made from plaster, Brown said the body casts are actually pretty light. The heaviest piece is a sculpture of the Emperor Caligula, made from marble and weighing almost 2,000 pounds.
Next, visitors experience the 4D theater, offering a three-minute recreation of the volcanic eruption.
“It’s a time lapse of the entire day, and the guests feel the tremors of Vesuvius,” said Cynthia Brown, VP of exhibitions for Exhibitions International. “The floor shakes, there’s fog machines, fans and lighting, all to give the effect of what people would have experienced then.”
Excavators of Pompeii found that the human and animal remains were surrounded by voids in the ash, so they were able to cast them in plaster, showing the harrowing positions of the how the inhabitants died. Six of these casts are on display in the exhibit, including one of a dog.
“What really captured me is the human drama of those last moments, and you feel for those people,” Humphrey said. “You try to picture yourself in that moment, and it’s overwhelming actually. It resonated with me very much that I’m only a small piece in this world, and so do I really have control?”
Collins said seeing the casts is a reverent experience.
“You’re staring at a cast, a mold of an actual person, and this isn’t a drawing or film, this is real,” he said. “It’s stirring, and puts the disaster into perspective.”
The exhibit is open to all ages, but the subject matter of devastation and death can be difficult. There is also a small section that depicts a Pompeii brothel, where parental guidance is advised. Humphrey said the question of what is appropriate to show children came up during the exhibition, “Body Worlds,” which featured dissected human bodies and animals.
“When we have exhibits that present all aspects of science, we try to prepare our public as much as possible with information,” Humphrey said. “We encourage parents that if they are going to see the exhibition, to have proper conversations with (their children) prior to coming.”
Humphrey said when she first saw the exhibition in California, there was a lot of discussion with other visitors about natural disasters, especially with the spate of hurricanes that have pummeled the U.S.
“There were a lot of questions and people having conversations about life, about death, about these extreme weather happenings around the world,” Humphrey said. “Mother nature is a very powerful force.”
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- Male bust: Bronze and glass, 1st century B.C. House of the Citharist in Pompeii. This was one of two bronze busts found together at the House of the Citharist. These were likely a portrayal of the home owners, who were one of the oldest and most influential families in the city.
- Statue of Caligula: Marble, 1st century A.D. This statue of Roman Emperor Caligula (12 A.D.-41 A.D.) was crafted after his assassination. Here he is depicted in the likeness of the god Mars Ultor. The emperor had many ties to Pompeii.
- Fountain sculpture: Bronze, 1st century B.C. House of the Citharist. This sculpture of a snake was found in the middle of the peristyle garden water basin at the home, and water sprayed from the serpent’s mouth to supply the fountain.
- Erotic scene: Painted Plaster, c.45-79 A.D. Erotic images were usually placed in brothels or small rooms next to the slave quarters. This image was found in the public area of a wealthy home, portraying a satyr revealing the body of a nymph sleeping in the woods.
- Silver coin: Silver, 1st century A.D. House of the Successus. This was one of 17 coins found in a box next to the remains of a person trying to flee the city.
- Guard dog: Cast. House of Orpheus.This dog was found at the front door of the home, presumably to stand guard while the family fled. The bronze studs still remain from the collar.
- Theater mask: Marble, 1st century A.D. Theater masks were often found in peristyle gardens, and this mask was used as decoration. It portrays a cheerful young male character that was prominent in Roman comedy.
- Signet ring: Gold, 1st century A.D. These rings were worn by both men and women. The rings featured the owner’s name, or had an engraving of the owner’s mark. This ring showcases a hero.
- Necklace: Gold, pearl and emerald, 1st century A.D. Pompeiians liked to add gemstones to their jewelry. Pearls and emeralds, and the crescent moon were representative of the goddess Venus.
- Gladiator helmet: Bronze, 1st century A.D. The ornate helmet was found in the gladiatorial barracks. The helmet features an eagle and Priapus, the Greek god of fertility, for protection.
‘Pompeii: The Exhibition’
When: Saturday, Nov. 18 through Monday, May 28.
Where: Arizona Science Center, 600 E. Washington St., Phoenix.
Admission: The exhibit is separate from Arizona Science Center admission. $11.95 for adults; $9.95 for children ages 3 to 17. Free for children younger than 2. Arizona Science Center member pricing is $9.95 for adults; $7.95 for children. Admission to the Arizona Science Center is $18 for adults; $13 for children ages 3 to 17; $16 for seniors.
Details: 602-716-2000, azscience.org.
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