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When the Dead Arise and Head to Times Square

March 4th, 2011

Why this onslaught of the almost-living dead in museums? Are we latter-day Ezekiels seeking prophetic messages from ancient skeletal remnants? Has the technology used to prepare the dead for world travel suddenly advanced? Or has the need for income by the overseers of mummies suddenly increased?

Perhaps all are true. But “Pompeii the Exhibit: Life and Death in the Shadow of Vesuvius,” which opens on Friday at Discovery Times Square, is unusual because its dead bodies are not really dead, and they are not really bodies. They are, however, often more affecting, and they form the fulcrum of an absorbing show about a place more widely heard of than thoroughly understood.

The bodies are made of white plaster, and their rough surfaces allow only vague outlines. But, like death masks, they capture a moment when their subjects ceased to be. A man sits crouched, his legs pulled up to his chest, covering his face, as if in despair. A girl desperately thrusts herself at her mother, grasping for comfort. A man, prostrate, begins to pull himself up a staircase but can go no farther. These bodies are writhing, groping, reaching, protecting. And their white forms are starkly displayed on black platforms in a dimly lighted gallery, looking like otherworldly figures enduring infernal agonies.

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