Pompeii is gruesome. There, in the terrible shadow of Mount Vesuvius, thousands of imperial Roman townspeople asphyxiated under a ten-foot blanket of volcanic ash. Two millennia later, archaeologists are still reconstructing the city and refining what we know about the cataclysm. We know Pompeii residents tried to escape and were unsuccessful. Centuries-old impressions of bodies trapped in agony under the rock layer testify to that. In the nineteenth century, an excavator named Giuseppi Fiorelli injected plaster into those indentations, bringing the long-suffocated back to life as ghostly, twisted statues.
A few of those plaster castings now haunt the Liberty Science Center (222 Jersey City Blvd.), and will continue there until May 14. They rest on a large dais just before the exit gallery of “Pompeii: The Immortal City,” the science museum’s most recent premium exhibition. (That means you’ll need to pay an extra eight bucks on top of LSC’s usual admission fee.) These three-dimensional chalk drawings from long, long ago are gently illuminated by video screens tricked out to suggest the fall of ash. In another three hundred and sixty degree projection gallery, the show with a simulated volcanic blast and a black billow of tephra.
“Pompeii: The Immortal City” has made the rounds. Since its conceptualization a few years ago, the show has played in science centers from Brussels, Belgium to Orlando, Florida. Organizations that have had a hand in its run include Tempora and EDG — touring project generators who throw red meat to field-tripping schoolkids in exhibits with titles like “The Lost World of Dragons” and “Expedition Dinosaur.” It’s easy to see how a show centered on a horrific volcanic explosion might fit in with that.
But the true curator of this show is Giovanni Di Pasquale, the science director of the Museo Galileo in Florence, a place where neither dragons nor Minions are on display. You’d expect a showrunner like that to opt for substance over sensation, and indeed, it’s in the small archaeological details where “Pompeii: The Immortal City” excels. Though this show is framed by detonations and crowned by a gang of grim statues, it’s not really made for ten-year-olds hungry for mummies and magma blasts. Instead, it’s for people with the patience to square up to small items unearthed from the volcanic rock: an amphora, a bent compass, a fishhook, an implement for harvesting grapes, an oil dispenser in the shape of a tiny foot.
These artifacts contradict the popular impression of Pompeiians as victims. Instead, they’re evidence of Pompeii the functional — a technologically advanced society where the quality of life wasn’t half bad. Before they were humbled by Vesuvius, the citizens of Pompeii had handsome homes, diversified architecture, clever means of measurement, and a sophisticated water system. Some of the most fascinating pieces in this show are fragments of ancient plumbing.
All of that was overwhelmed by the angry earth, and the empire’s fragility and the impermanence of human endeavor accounts, in part, for our continued fascination with Pompeii. In our own turbulent time, we do love a roaring apocalypse. For Pompeiians in 79 A.D., the world really did come to an end in the most sudden, spectacular manner imaginable. Fire from the sky interrupted the family dinner: a bread, cut humbly into eight segments and charred coal black, is one of the ossified items recovered from the layer of stone. Artworks, too, have been dusted off and hung, including little statues, decorations, and paintings on plaster. Nearly all of these are aesthetically bad, but some of them are fascinating, like the pair of rough-rendered images of cupids overseeing the grape harvest.
At most natural history museums, these pictures and paintings would be locked inside thick vitrines. In “Pompeii: The Immortal City,” they’re far more accessible; some aren’t inside cases at all. Perhaps Di Pasquale and Liberty Science Center believes that if they can withstand a volcanic eruption and the depredations of the ages, they’re not going to fall to the grabbing hands of a second-grade class. This is a gamble, but it pays off: it reinforces how commonplace the items and paintings are, and it produces a feeling of immersion that the volcano and falling ash movies in the round can’t begin to approach. It’s the best reminder that Pompeii used to be something way better than immortal. It used to be alive.