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Normally, museums do not make us think of death.

This is only natural, since the subject of museums is how people have lived. Visitors stop to marvel at beautiful statues or read placards that describe how a tool was used to plant crops. All of this encourages visitors to forget that someone’s death probably put the object in the showcase. Life is the normal narrative of museums.

The British Museum, however, decided to bodly bring death into the display cases with the “Life and Death: Pompeii and Herculaneum” exhibit.

The exhibit shows a dying child sitting on a woman and scratching at the wall. A man huddles next to wall as volcanic heat and ash kill him. A child was vaporized just outside a shelter that would not have provided protection.

A trick of archaeology allows the museum to tell the victims’ tales.

When Mount Vesuvius erupted in A.D. 79 and buried the nearby Roman towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum, the volcanic discharge vaporized some, leaving holes in the debris. Excavators in the 1800s learned they could fill the holes with plaster and create casts of those who were vaporized.

Though video presentations in the exhibit explain the mechanics of how the people died, the bulk of the exhibit is devoted to their lives. Precious details of ancient life were preserved in the catastrophe. Food that would have long since rotted away was carbonized; a bottle still containing olive oil was found. A gold bracelet in the shape of a snake provides insight into how people dressed, and a metal urn used to heat food came away almost immaculately preserved.

There is even humor found in the exhibit. A child’s drawing of a man riding a horse mars part of an ancient wall, perhaps proving that children have always been wanted to decorate in their own way — by marking up the walls. An inscription from a Pompeii triclinium, a dining room, established some rules for parties:

“Don’t dirty the couch covers, keep your eyes off other people’s partners and take your quarrels home with you.”

This is the most moving exhibit I have ever seen. Others might show long-dead kings or aristocrats buried with their prized possessions, but those cannot compare with seeing people in the throes of death or the tools and habits they put to everyday use. This is not an exhibit to be taken lightly, but it might give visitors a more accurate view of history and a peek into how people lived and exactly how they died.


DirectionsBoth the A1 and the M11 will get you to London. Driving to the museum itself might be less practical: it is in the congestion zone fee area of London and there is little street parking available, according to the museum website. However, the museum is relatively close to the Holborn and Tottenham Court Road tube stops.

Times“Life and Death: Pompeii and Herculaneum” runs through Sept. 29. The exhibit is open from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, with last admission at 4:10 p.m. On Friday, the exhibit stays open until 8:30 p.m. and last admission is at 7:10 p.m.

CostsAdvance tickets are sold out, but 500 tickets a day will be available for purchase at the museum through August. Tickets cost 15 British pounds for adults (about $20); 12.50 pounds for students and those 16-18 years old. Children younger than 16 get in free but must be accompanied by a paying adult. Museum members get in free.

NoteRoman art can be sexually graphic and might not be suited for some.

FoodThe museum’s Court Restaurant serves lunch, afternoon tea and, on Fridays only, dinner. It offers a special menu inspired by the Pompeii and Herculaneum exhibit for 22.50 pounds (two courses) or 27.50 pounds (three courses). Cafes in several locations offer sandwich and snack fare, coffee and other beverages.

InformationVisit or call (+44) (0) 20 7323 8181. Follow updates on the exhibition via Twitter on #PompeiiExhibition and the Museum’s Twitter account @britishmuseum.

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