The Horror of Pompeii – Plaster Casts and Photography

Plaster cast of a victim at Pompeii

Plaster cast of a victim at Pompeii

I was surprised to be upset by the plaster casts of victims at Pompeii.

I have excavated human remains before, and was not bothered by it, but the plaster casts were upsettingly evocative. Standing there, it was impossible to do anything but picture myself attempting to escape the inevitable. It was impossible to not imagine the terror those people must have experienced.

It was horrible.

It was beautiful.

It was the single most important part of my visit to Pompeii.

I was surprised when I watched other tourists experience these plaster casts though, since nobody else seemed nearly as moved as me. In fact, almost nobody else seemed to even see the casts or acknowledge their humanity. Instead, tourists were experiencing the casts through their cameras. They were not even bending over to get a look, but lowering their camera or smartphone to snap a picture before moving on. Some people had their smartphone on a pole, presumably so as to be able to take better selfies, and they could just stick the phone down to the level of the cast without even having to exert themselves.

Tourists snapping photos of plaster casts of victims at Pompeii

Tourists snapping photos of plaster casts of victims at Pompeii

I was upset by the fate of the ancient Pompeiians, and I was upset that nobody else seemed to even acknowledge that they were viewing human remains.

During my graduate studies, Karina Croucher introduced me to the debate surrounding the display of human remains in museums – with more and more museums concerned about the lack of dignity of displaying remains and the potential visitor upset of coming upon remains unawares. Some museums are no longer displaying remains, and if they are, there is always the choice for a visitor to bypass the remains if they choose. The remains are displayed in a respectful way, with space for visitors to reflect.  This reminds people that they are viewing a body, and hopefully avoids offending anybody.

Maybe we need to be offended though?  Exhibits like BodyWorlds forces people to come to grips with the physicality of the meat of their bodies – an unsettling experience for many, and an offensive experience for some.

Which way is ‘right’?  Should we avoid displaying and viewing human remains?  When is it appropriate?  Are human remains like any other organism, to be displayed and learned from in a museum?  Either way, the exhibition of human remains is a fraught issue with strong feelings on both sides.

My experience at Pompeii seems to support both sides.  If the town did not have a display of the plaster casts, it would be easy to forget the tragic accident that happened.  Therefore, removing them from display or moving them to places where visitors have to seek them out rather than displaying them where they were found would really change the nature of people’s visit to Pompeii.  The eruption of mount Vesuvius in 79AD is the reason we are able to visit Pompeii, and the result of that eruption was the death of many people.  Whitewashing that fact by not displaying the casts so as to not offend people would greatly diminish the importance of the site.

Watching tourists walk through, snap pictures, and move on really upset me though.  I understand why museums have been tackling the problem of respect in the display of human remains.  I felt like people were hardly aware of what they were photographing.

Would forcing a more somber tone help though?

I’m reminded of the recent kerfuffle over people taking selfies at concentration camps.  A The New Yorker article highlighted a Facebook page that collected selfies taken by Israeli teens taken at concentration camps.  The page garnered outrage, and even led to the discussion of whether Auschwitz should be a site for photography at all.  Paul Mullins at Archaeology and Material Culture took up the discussion, and pointed out that selfies in general are an attempt at place-making, rather than evidence of a narcissistic generation.

And isn’t that what tourist photography is anyways?  Tourists will never take an original photograph, but everyone feels the need to take all the same pictures as everyone else.  Taking your own photographs somehow makes the experience real, creating art somehow cements the experience in our current psyche.

Maybe, instead of being oblivious to the horror that the plaster casts at Pompeii evoke, the photography of the casts is a way that people mediate it.  Photography as a coping mechanism to deal with the the emotions raised by human remains, allowing people to distance themselves from the frighteningly real and unavoidable reminder of our frail human bodies and the awesome power of nature.

Maybe that’s too generous, but I can’t really believe the removing photography would force people to contemplate the humanity of the victims of the eruption, and removing the casts altogether would relegate them even further back in people’s minds.  All I can say is that I hope people slow down and think while snapping tourist photos.


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3 Responses to The Horror of Pompeii – Plaster Casts and Photography

  1. Pingback: Around the Archaeology Blog-o-sphere Digest #6 | Doug's Archaeology

  2. Dan Grossman says:

    The casts show the horror of a terrible event. We can not structure the perception of viewers. Pompeii demonstrates that humans can be puny to nature or God

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