The British Museum’s Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum


We had a bit of a reminder of our trip to Italy earlier in the year, with the British Museum’s Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum exhibition today

We spent a lot of our time in Pompeii looking at the public buildings such as the amphitheatre and Forum (which I now know was largely funded by a priestess). While they did feature, this exhibit was more about bringing the everyday lives of individuals who lived there (in houses like those in the street below) into focus through the objects that they would have used.

VLUU L310W L313 M310W / Samsung L310W L313 M310W

The circular Reading Room has been transformed into an exhibition space that tries to capture the sights and sounds of Pompeii, letting us see what one of the grander houses might have looked like, and how the individual rooms – from atrium, to garden, to bedroom to kitchen – would have been used.

It’s not a complete reconstruction – which is a bit of a shame and a missed opportunity – but in the atrium we find examples of the material that would have been found there, such as strong boxes, shrines etc. My favourite was the kitchen shrine (sadly no pics allowed) in the culina space that included everything from cooking implements (including a dish for roasting dormouse) to carbonised bread and fruit. And the hortus (garden area) reminded me of this real life view.

VLUU L310W L313 M310W / Samsung L310W L313 M310W

The exhibit also successfully some of the sights we saw in May to life a little more – for example, explaining how this type of food bar would have been used in practice:

VLUU L310W L313 M310W / Samsung L310W L313 M310WVLUU L310W L313 M310W / Samsung L310W L313 M310W

And, as in Pompeii it was the little personal details that brought the exhibit to life.We’re left wondering whether the contorted dog (whose cast we meet almost immediately) did actually have the red lead of his counterpart in his owner’s mosaic. We (thankfully for me) managed to avoid the casts of bodies in the real Pompeii, but there were a few here . 

I also got a bit more of a sense of just how slowly the work to uncover both Pompeii and Herculaneum has been – only a third and two-thirds of the respective cities have been uncovered, and research is still uncovering more detail about everyday lives.

it’s a pity that Pompeii doesn’t have something similar to at least introduce people a little more to what they are seeing (maybe that’s the job of the archaeological museum in Naples) but something like this exhibit would definitely be helpful in giving a sense of context to those who choose to explore on their own steam.

I didn’t download the exhibition’s app – I’ll have a look another time: but these YouTube videos give you a bit more of an idea of what the exhibition was trying to achieve.


  1. I loved the exhibition, it was a true highlight of 2013 for me. I was also honoured to get to meet the man who put it all together in November when he gave a talk concerning the exhibition. His personality really shone through, as did his enthusiasm, both of which enriched the experience.

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