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When the Dead Arise and Head to Times Square

March 4th, 2011

At least as portrayed here, this was a culture preoccupied with vitality, almost devoted to the life force until confronting its opposite. We are given some suggestion of what happened when we enter a bare room, and the doors close. On a screen a computer simulation chronicles what inhabitants of Pompeii might have seen during the day and a half of destruction. As the tumult grows, the walls and floor vibrate. Images of volcanic activity become more apocalyptic, and after the climactic devastation, the room’s panels open, and we face the darkened gallery of ghostly figures.

After passing through that realm, we are led into Pompeii’s afterlife. A timeline maps the history of the site, something that is traced in more detail in the book “Pompeii Awakened,” by Judith Harris, a consultant for the exhibition.

The story is ripe with carelessness, dishonesty and political jockeying. It would have been good to find even more of this material here, along with a sense of how Pompeii’s exploration led to the development of modern archaeology. The discoveries also, as the exhibition suggests, fed the 19th-century Romantic fascination with Nature’s wild powers. Pompeii became a site of international pilgrimage.

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