I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the display of human remains over the past year. I’ve written a few blog posts about it, and I’ve seen my views develop and change.
Visiting the ROM’s new Pompeii exhibit, #ROMpeii, gives me even more to think about. At Pompeii itself, I was first really upset by the way tourists seemed to not even be looking at the plaster casts of the victims of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. But then I realized that sometimes people need the distance that a camera provides to process horrifying things. Similarly, some people are very conflicted about photography, selfies, and ‘disrespectful‘ behaviour at difficult heritage sites such as Auschwitz.
Discussions in the heritage community about the display of human remains can be complicated. Exhibits need to weigh sensitivity and respect, with learning and knowledge, as well as keeping context on what happened and why. Exhibits try to be sensational to draw attention, without being sensationalist and disrespectful. It is a delicate, fuzzy line to walk.
The #ROMpeii exhibit, in my opinion, is walking that line quite tightly. They are displaying plaster casts of victims, and some might argue that they have less context provided at the site of Pompeii, but that ignores the extensive description and explanation present in the exhibit. Visitors to the exhibit walk slowly and purposefully through the space. They are reading displays, contemplating the casts, and taking it seriously. People are also taking photos. But somehow I get the feeling that visitors are not simply experiencing the exhibit through their camera lens.
What’s the difference then?
Obviously the spaces at Pompeii and #ROMpeii are different, but both are excellent examples of thought-out, context-heavy exhibits that give visitors a chance to experience a past way of life and contemplate a horrifying disaster. Is it the fact that the #ROMpeii exhibit has a surcharge associated with it on top of usual museum entrance fees? Does this ensure that people take their time to ensure they gain the most from their visit? It’s not like a visit to Pompeii is cheap though. You need to get there, then pay entrance, you need someplace to stay in Italy, and everything associated with it.
Maybe the difference is scale. The plaster casts are a tiny part of a visit to Pompeii. People are trying to get the most from their experience, which means covering as much ground as possible. Whereas in a museum, getting the most from your experience means going slowly and looking everywhere.
Should that mean that the casts should only be displayed in a museum then? When people will take the time to go slowly and be respectful?
What does that even mean? Be respectful?
Respecting the residents of Pompeii might mean standing and contemplating the plaster casts in silence, but it might also mean walking their streets and marvelling at how easy it is to imagine living there. Maybe it means seeing the volcano in the skyline every time you look up, just as they would have.
The juxtaposition of the practical daily life that you can’t help but see as you walk the streets of Pompeii with the evocative reminders of the disaster that befell the residents is the most powerful thing that stuck with me after my visit. Removing the plaster casts from the site and relegating them to a museum where they would be “respected” would remove that, sterilizing a visit to the city.
That isn’t ‘respectful’.
Forcing people to behave in a proscribed way isn’t respectful either.
What do you think?