Life and Death at the British Museum

I went to the British Museum yesterday, to check out the Life and Death Pompeii and Herculaneum exhibition. Not being a real archaeologist, its not something I know a lot about (despite a discussion on the subject the Narrative Tools meeting I went to a couple of weeks ago). For those who haven’t been, if you can get a ticket, it’s worth going. Items from the two ruined cities are brought together and and displayed in galleries that take you on a tour of an archetypical house.

Pan with a Goat (image linked from

There are some items from the famed “secret cabinet” of the Royal Museum in Naples, alongside the less racey domestic items and the emotionally engaging void casts that reveal families and their animals at the moment of death. Here’s a handy review from a fellow blogger if you’d like a second opinion.

My wife had heard about a British Museum app that accompanies the exhibition. We checked it out in advance, but the BM didn’t recommend it for visiting, and so we decided we might buy it after we came back, if we were inspired to learn more.

We were. We did. And I’m looking at it now.

It seems to have been made by putting together the text from the museum labels and the content from the multimedia guides that were available for hire at the museum. I am of course now a little suspicious of their clever commercial thinking. By suggesting the app wouldn’t be a useful companion at the exhibition, they might have managed to sell me the same content twice – once when I hired the multimedia guide at the museum, and again when I got home to buy the app. The navigation through the content is different in the museum based guide, where  items are traditionally labeled with an index number that users input on their handheld units (which looked like Samsung phones) to call up the content. The use-at-home app presents you with a map of the region and then more detailed maps of each city and a number of themes (for example: Commerce; Wealth and Status; and, Religion and beliefs), thus placing each exhibited item in its location of discovery and it’s social  context. It would have been a pain to navigate at the exhibition.

By way of example, I was particularly taken by some frescos of tavern life which appear to be a sort of ancient comic strip. To find this in the app, I had to guess which city these frescos were from and which theme they might be found under. Lets start with Herculaneum, I recall that these taverns were for the poorer sort, so not Relaxing in Luxury I guess. I’ll try Commerce. So now I’m presented with plan of Herculaneum parked with fourteen Googlemaps-style pins representing locations where items were found. Touch one at random and the map zooms in as well and displaying a label: “Tap, tank and pipes”. No, not what I’m looking for. I go through each of the pins, but don’t find the comic strip frescos. There is a “Lovers drinking fresco” though, so slightly frustrated I tap that, and get an image and some text. Aha! At the side where the themes were displayed, there’s now a list of all the items in that city and theme. So when I come out to the main map, and then zoom in to Pompeii, I just tap on Commerce, double-tap on a random pin and scroll the list to find what I’m looking for.

What I finally get are two of the four images, accompanied by the text that I recall from the museum label and an which features my favourite Professor of Classics, Mary Beard, talking about the images. Sadly though her description is accompanied by still photos (of herself and two of the frescos) two of the images are missing, which means her commentary makes more sense when you are standing  in front of all the frescos. Given that I can’t find images of the missing frescos on the internet either, I’m wondering whether their modern day owner is exerting strong rights protection.

A modern interpretation of what the frescos may have looked like when new (linked from

I might have like to see more provenance references in this app, but I don’t so I don’t know where these frescos (or any other of the exhibits) live when they’re not starring in this exhibition, or where I can find out more about any of the objects.

There is a nice animated video however, imagining how the catastrophic eruption might have looked from the streets, narrated with a reading Pliny the Younger’s eyewitness account. At a number of points during the video, there is an opportunity to pause it and look at some related text and objects. There are a number of other videos too, in which curator Paul Roberts gives an overview each of the social themes.

The thing that disappoints me most about the app is the omission of any details about the hypothetical house around which the exhibition is based. As visitors enter the show, they are treated to a nicely detailed CGI fly-through of this suggested home and street-tavern. I’ve learned that my fellow archaeologists worry that such visualisations are too often perceived as “the truth” by non-experts. This app would have been a great opportunity to show visitors the research and the decisions that created this particular visualisation, and maybe even dynamically show how the house model might have changed if different assumptions had been made.

5 thoughts on “Life and Death at the British Museum

  1. […] went to see the Vikings exhibition at the British Museum last weekend. Having very much enjoyed Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum last year, I had high hopes for this visit. I was disappointed. First of all, I don’t like […]

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