Sunday, 23 November 2014

Pompeii in Stockholm

The scale of the Swedish Pompeii exhibition in the Millesgården museum, statue park and art gallery on Lidingö is much smaller than that of the large Pompeii exhibition in the British Museum two years ago. However, many of the elements and – if my memory does not completely fail me – at least one of the exhibits are shared. Both exhibitions started from a door and a street space and presented a house layout and the bust of Caecilius Iucundus. However, whereas the British Museum presented a section of Roman life and a general ‘everyhouse’, the Stockholm exhibition presents one specific house, that of Caecilius Iucundus, from the Insula V,1, a block of houses that was studied by the Swedish Pompeii Project.

The visit to the exhibition was organised by the discipline of Classical Studies from the Stockholm University and it was a joint outing for the Universities of Stockholm and Uppsala. The director of the original project had been Anna-Marie Leander Touati, currently at the Lund University, who was unable to come to guide us. We were guided by Professor Arja Karivieri who had been the assistant director at the Swedish Institute at Rome and one of the field directors of the Swedish Pompeii Project. Thus, we also heard how the project came about after the Soprintendente Guzzo had invited foreign institutes and universities to excavate, record and publish blocks in Pompeii in the late 1990s. The block in question was selected through the expertise of Margareta Staub-Gierow who after her collaborations with the German excavations suggested this block due to its interesting wall painting chronology and content. The excavations started in 2000 from the northern side of the block from the Greek Epigrapher’s House and proceded the Banker’s House (of Caecilius Iucundus) and finished in the House of Bronze Bull.

The exhibition was not the largest and especially the garden part felt a little bit cramped with a bonsai and some Mediterranean herbs in pots representing the central courtyard garden and some lemon trees growing elsewhere in their large pots bringing Mediterranean vegetation in the gallery. The original items were not very many, but the selection was representative. Not all finds were from the Banker’s House but most of them were from the block studied by the Swedish team. The highlights included the bust of the Caecilius Iucundus himself, the bronze bull from the eponymous house, a set of silver bowls, plates and spoons from the same house, framed wall paintings from the Banker’s House and other buildings in the block and the copy of the frieze presenting the 62 AD earthquake from the house shrine. Much of the architectural detail was exhibition constructions and photograph mosaics, but excellent work nevertheless (even if the floor size was not correct).

A corner presenting Pompeii’s effect on the public and private architecture and sculpture in Stockholm was interesting and a TV documentary from 2003 brought the excavations and images from Pompeii to the exhibition space. There was also a brand new video about a new purpose-build laser-scanned 3D stereo reconstruction. Not all furniture, doors or shutters were totally successfully modelled, but the actual scanning and the modelling of the house structure was impressive. Especially the computer-modelled peristyle courtyard garden gave a good idea of the original outlay of these town houses.

The real minus is the lack of a catalogue on sale. This is apparently due to the limited funds available, but this was something I was looking for after myself (an easy Christmas present to an Archaeologist Husband). The entrance fee is considered relatively high (150 Swedish korna), but all the costs have to be covered by the income, since this is a private foundation and no public money has been spent in the exhibition. It is a pity that the funds could not be stretched to the 'publication', since the exhibition is of national importance and was opened by the Crown Princess Victoria. As a curiosity, one can tell that due to this opening, the Director and Assistant Director of the Swedish Institute in Rome could not attend a large event day in Rome on the activities and importance of the foreign institutes, organised by the Italian Government as the EU prime minister country in Palazzo Altemps [the irony, the irony considering the recent events] and they arrived just in time to the opening of the Landscape Archaeology Conference straight from the airport. But then it was important to show loyalty to the Pompeii project and the private foundation, which has already done a laudable job with the exhibition.

Summa summarum, the exhibition is not as impressive as the British Museum exhibition that had a whole painted triclinium with its birds, authentic wooden furniture and plaster casts of the perished people, but as a presentation of a research project and its results with some good museum architecture and original items from actual buildings studied, it was a pleasant experience. Naturally, we got specialist guidance from our professor and free entry that made our visit extra special.

A Finnish friend asked if it is worthwhile for an ancient historian to travel from Helsinki to Stockholm to see the exhibition. We discussed this in the coffee table and the shared answer was "No" - unless really interested in comparing the Finnish and Swedish Pompeii projects. However, the exhibition is open until mid-May, so one could do a late spring cruise with the Sweden/Finland ferry to the Värtan harbour and head to Lidingö, away from the beaten track, and enjoy the whole of the entity of the house museum and statue park as well in a better weather. There is also a castle-like Scandia hotel in the neighbourhood and a restaurant, so it could be a spring cruise holiday with a partner or friends. Then it would be worth it.

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