Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum at the British Museum

I was really lucky this weekend to get to go see the biggest exhibition this year (unless you’re a fan of David Bowie. Then I guess that’s the biggest exhibition of the year for you.) My sister Em and I went to see Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum in London.

One of the most famous paintings to have survived Pompeii; this shows a baker and his wife
Image: British Museum

If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll know that I’ve been swotting up in preparation for the weekend; if I read about an exhibition afterwards, I always get cross if I realise I’ve missed something, so I decided to go prepared. I even asked well-known classicist Mary Beard what we should try and see (her advice: see whatever is comfortable to get to.)


The exhibition itself is laid out as if a Roman house- in this case, it’s based on the House of the Tragic Poet in Pompeii. Visitors are guided through each room, looking at the paintings and furniture (which has mainly survived from Herculaneum, which did not suffer the same level of carbonisation as Pompeii, meaning that wooden furniture was well preserved when it was discovered.)

Image: British Museum

Although there were some exhibits I knew I wanted to see, such as the preserved cradle (which, when found, was discovered to have its tiny occupant still inside, swaddled in blankets), there were some major surprises. One fresco of birds is more than reminiscent of William Morris’ designs in the 19th century- even the colours are similar.  When wandering around the exhibition, I was struck by how the colours of the paintings really gave them an immediacy. It was almost bizarre to think that these paintings and objects were two thousand years old.


One thing I knew about, but which still prompted me to giggle like a schoolboy, was the Pompeiian obsession with matters of the flesh. Apparently in the city itself there are, ahem, more male bits on display than have been drawn a Year 9 Science textbook. And you find them in some mind-boggling places in the exhibition. I won’t spoil it for those of you who want to visit, but there was a particular statue which raised eyebrows and a rather odd wind-chime that my sister offered to buy a copy of for me. Also, there’s a very famous bust of a man on display- and his face is not the only thing on display. It’s just… weird the way it’s been put together.

One of the most famous casts from Pompeii- a dog trying to escape its chain
Image: British Museum

Of course, this wouldn’t be an exhibition about the hell wreaked by Vesuvius if there weren’t casts. There is one particularly gobsmacking group of casts which is actually both moving and upsetting.  But what brings these people to life is the display of the items they chose to take with them: a set of medical tools, precious jewellery, a statue of the goddess Fortuna. It’s very sad and human.

The exhibition runs until September 29th. You can buy tickets here.


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