British Museum Opens Exhibition On Life And Death In Pompeii And Herculaneum

Pompeii
Today the British Museum in London opens what is sure to be the hit exhibition of the year.

Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum” examines the daily life of the Roman world, as it was preserved in two cities buried under volcanic ash from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. Through fine art and mundane objects, we get to see what life was like for ordinary Romans.

Romans like the baker Terentius Neo and his wife, whose likenesses were preserved in a fresco on the wall of their house. “Baker” is a misleadingly humble term for Terentius, who was obviously well-to-do, and who had a literate wife who is shown as his business partner.

The exhibition is laid out like the House of the Tragic Poet, one of the homes excavated at Pompeii. A video reconstruction prepared by Giunta Regionale della Campania shows what it looked like when it was being used. As you wander through the atrium, bedroom, kitchen and garden, you learn about different aspects of Roman culture.

The ash that buried the cities and killed its inhabitants preserved frescoes and graffiti that show us a snapshot from the time. Slogans from an election held a few months before still adorn public walls, including a painting of a candidate distributing free bread. Other graffiti boasted of sexual conquests or lost love.

A large amount of the exhibition space is devoted to brightly colored frescoes that once decorated interior walls. Some show religious or natural scenes. One room that overlooked a garden had walls painted like a garden, giving the illusion of being outside.

%Gallery-183881%While much of the focus is on the upper classes, several displays show how the more common Romans lived. In the kitchen, for example, we see the workplace of the slaves. Here, there’s a simple altar for them to worship their gods, and a worktable covered in carbonized food. One blackened loaf of bread bears the stamp, “Made by Celer, the slave of Quintus Granius Verus.”

The kitchen also revealed an odd fact about Roman homes – it was where the toilet was usually located. One wonders how many Romans died because of this ignorance of microbiology.

Another oddity of Roman life was how sexual the art was. What we may see as crude today was considered funny or magical to the Romans. A young woman wore a pendent in the shape of a penis to ensure luck and fertility. A phallic wind chime was supposed to bring luck to the household. Then there’s the sculpture of the god Pan porking a goat. Nobody is sure what the Romans were thinking when they made that one.

The final part of the exhibition is dedicated to the sobering casts of the dead. When the citizens of Pompeii and Herculaneum were buried by the eruption, they rotted away, leaving their ghostly shapes in the hardened ash. Archaeologists have poured plaster into many of these cavities to reveal men, woman, and children in their death throes. A particularly poignant scene is of a family of four. One child still sits on the mother’s lap, while another, who could have been no more than four, lies nearby, her face so well preserved as to be recognizable.

These bodies will be one of the main draws to the exhibition, but I have to admit to a certain guilt at my voyeuristic fascination with them. What does our obsession with these casts say about ourselves? Cambridge historian Mary Beard has written a thoughtful essay on this and comes up with no easy answers.

This sort of blockbuster exhibition is something the British Museum does well, and this is one of their best yet. From the high art to crude graffiti, from naughty sculptures to a baby’s cradle, the breadth and richness of Roman life are brought to life in an experience no one with an interest in the ancient world will want to miss.

“Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum” runs until September 29.

Crap Food No Longer The Norm At Museums

getty center foodIt all started with a damn good slice of pound cake at the British Museum in London. Then I wondered why the bowl of corn chowder I devoured at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art cafeteria, Lickety Split, was the best thing I’d eaten in weeks. And by the time I had a plate of mouth-watering chipotle chicken quesadillas at the Getty Museum cafeteria in L.A. several weeks later, I wondered what the hell was going on. Museum cafeteria food is supposed to be overpriced crap, right?

Ordinarily, I hate to get stuck eating at tourist attractions. In December, on an excursion to the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, for example, I neglected to pack drinks or lunch for my kids and was distressed to find $5.19 fountain drinks (one size only), cups of soup for $7 and a selection of crummy looking sandwiches that cost roughly the same as Burundi’s per capita GDP. This is more or less what I expect from dining establishments at any sort of tourist attraction: a rip off.getty center cafeBut there appears to be a real trend toward good, moderately priced food at a host of art museums I’ve visited over the last year. Aside from the otherworldly chowder, Lickety Split at the Mass MOCA in the Berkshires has tasty burritos, great coffee, microbrews and fresh baked goods. The British Museum has cafés featuring good sandwiches, soups, pies and baked goods. The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston has two gourmet restaurants, a café and a cafeteria, all of which looked appetizing to me on a visit last summer. And the Art Institute of Chicago has a pretty decent cafeteria, a café, plus a fine dining option.

But my favorite museum culinary experiences in the last year came courtesy of the Getty Museum and the Milwaukee Art Museum. The Getty has a few dining options, ranging from casual to gourmet, but I was hard pressed to make a selection at their cafeteria, which is loaded with good-looking, healthy food. If the weather is good, as it usually is in L.A., you can sit outside and enjoy a lovely view along with a good, reasonably priced meal (see video below).


cafe calatravaCafé Calatrava at the Milwaukee Art Museum offers fine dining with a view of Lake Michigan (see photo on the right). The seasonally inspired menu is created to match the museum’s featured exhibits. When we visited in December during the Treasures of Kenwood House exhibit, there was a British theme featuring offerings like ale steamed mussels, ploughman’s lunch, wild boar and sage bangers and mash and Cornish beef and veggie pasties. I had the pasties, which were first rate, and my wife had something called Col. Mustard’s chicken, which came with some tasty dauphinoise potatoes.

I hope the experiences I’ve had at these museums is indeed a trend and the days of having to smuggle food into museums and other tourist attractions are numbered. Let us know if you’ve had good, bad or indifferent dining experiences at museums and other tourist sites around the world.

[Photo credits: Getty Center (sea scallops), Dave Seminara]

British Museum Highlights Strange Money From Around The World

British Museum
What’s this? A knife? A razor? Actually, it’s Chinese currency dating back to the 5th-3rd century B.C. It’s one of the many rare and unusual pieces on display in the newly reopened money gallery at the British Museum in London.

The Citi Money Gallery looks at world history through money, starting with the Bronze Age and going right up to the Age of the Credit Card. This has always been one of my favorite galleries in the British Museum because it shows the artifacts as dynamic parts of society, not simply objects to be admired. Trade, credit and the evolution of the state are all covered.

The refurbished gallery includes some current events as well, such as the rise of payments through mobile phones in Haiti. The 2010 earthquake wrecked the banking sector, and Haitians quickly adopted a form of payment through phone calls that is a leader in the world.

As much as we travelers want to break free of our everyday lives, money matters are still an essential part of travel. Whether it’s discovering that nobody takes credit cards in that remote third-world town or that your American ATM card won’t work in Europe on weekends, money seems to crop up again and again.

Sometimes that can be amusing, like when you change 20 dollars into Somaliland Shillings and get so many 500-shilling notes that you can’t stuff them into your pocket. Possibly the weirdest travel experience I had was in the early ’90s when I went into a bank in Iran and saw a big banner in Farsi and English reading “DEATH TO AMERICA.” Right under it was a teller’s counter with a sign saying “American Express Travelers Checks accepted here.” The Islamic Revolution is all well and good, but business is business.

Exotic foreign money also makes for interesting souvenirs and gifts. Check out our gallery for a sample of money and its use around the world.

[Photo courtesy Mike Peel]

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Ancient Curses Uncovered In Two Countries

ancient curses, curses, curse, Carlisle
It’s been a good week for ancient curses.

A “cursing stone” has been discovered on the Isle of Canna, Scotland. More precisely called a bullaun stone, they’re natural or artificial depressions in a stone that catch rainwater and give it magical properties, usually to heal or to help women conceive a child. A shaped stone is placed in the hole that’s turned to make a prayer or curse.

The bullaun stone on the Isle of Canna is at the base of an early Christian cross dating to about 800 A.D. Now a round stone carved with a cross has been found that fits exactly into this depression. While bullaun stones are found in several European countries, it’s uncommon for both the stone and the base to be preserved.

Over in Italy, two ancient curses have been translated. A Spanish researcher working at the Archaeological Museum of Bologna has revealed the text of two curses inscribed on lead tablets in Roman times. Called a defixio, such curses were common in Greek and Roman times and often came mass produced with only the name of the target needing to be filled in. The ones in Bologna target an animal doctor and a senator, making it the first such curse found against a Roman senator.

One reads in part, “Crush, kill Fistus the senator. . .May Fistus dilute, languish, sink and may all his limbs dissolve …” The one against the animal doctor is no less nasty: “Destroy, crush, kill, strangle Porcello and wife Maurilla. Their soul, heart, buttocks, liver. . .”

Many museums have examples of these ancient nastygrams. One at the British Museum was found in London and curses a woman’s memory. Since it’s the only record of her to survive, it appears the curse worked.

Curses can be found all over the place. In Carlisle I came across a cursing stone made in 1525 by the Archbishop of Glasgow against the Border Reivers, Scottish raiders who stole English livestock. There’s a photo of it above. You can read the text of the curse in my article about Carlisle.

2012 is shaping up to be a big year for Islamic art

Islamic art, LouvreThis year, several major exhibitions and new galleries are focusing on Islamic art.

The biggest news comes from Paris, where the Louvre is building a new wing dedicated to Islamic art. This is the biggest expansion to the museum since the famous glass pyramid. The new wing will have room to display more than 2500 artifacts from the Louvre’s permanent collection as well as notable loans. It will open at an as-yet undetermined date this summer.

In London, the British Museum is hosting two Islamic-related exhibits–one on the Hajj and one on Arabian horses. In Provo, Utah, the Brigham Young University Museum of Art is running Beauty and Belief: Crossing Bridges with the Arts of Islamic Culture. The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston opened two new galleries last December that include displays of Islamic art from Asia, and the Met in New York City also opened a new gallery late last year dedicated to the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia.

Islamic art is also facing some challenges this year. Looting and selling national treasures on the international art market always happens in times of political unrest. It happened in Iraq and Afghanistan and now it’s happening in Libya, where the death of Qaddafi did little to stabilize the situation. Syria is another country to watch. Sadly, unscrupulous “collectors” take advantage of civil wars and poverty to grab historic treasures for cheap.

Photo of eleventh century crystal ewer with birds in the Louvre collection courtesy Wikimedia Commons.