Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Museum of Naples: complaints department #2

Mueum of Naples, Mosaics Collection
From the Museum's website
There is one last complaint that does not come from the people I interviewed but from my personal experience and was highlight by my current research.
No information about the relationship between objects: sometimes different objects come from the same house, but the visitor is not able to see the connection. In some cases the objects are physically dispersed, like the mosaic of the guard dog from the House of Orpheus (exhibited in the Museum of Naples) and the plaster cast of the dog (from the same house but exhibited in the Antiquarium of Boscoreale), but even when they are in the same museum the relationship is not explicit for the visitor.

On the contrary, sometimes it seems that misleading connections are accidentally suggested by the use of exhibition's space. As Parry remarks, space in museum is part of the communicative process. Proximity implies meaningful connections between items. 

For example, I went to the Archaeological Museum of Taranto (MARTA) yesterday and I couldn’t initially understand the display's criteria. Then a guide explained that the different objects exhibited together came from the same burial. The curators had also added ancient statuettes or paintings illustrating how the found ear rings, buttons or fibulae used to be wore. Having received that information everything made much more sense to me.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to work out what are the display criteria in the Museum of Naples. For example, floor mosaics are exhibited next to wall mosaics (as fountains or nymphea’s decorations). To be honest, sometimes the criterion seemed to be simply chromatic similarity or aesthetic pleasantness.
Actually, the Museum's website says that the mosaics are exhibited according to the building materials and techniques. However, this information is not accessible during the visit of the museum.

It is not my intention to criticise the museum’s management because I understand that is very easy to judge and much more difficult to deal with such a complex situation. However, I can’t help thinking of how much of the potential of one of the most interesting museum in the world is partly wasted. 
Furthermore, if the site of Pompeii can still live on its fame, aura and unique history, I believe that the Museum should definitely invest in the quality of the information it is able to deliver.

Museum of Naples: complaints department #1

G. Sommer, Ancient Vases in the
Archaeological Museum of Naples
from wikipedia
So far, I have written notes about Pompeii and the absence of the artefacts on site. What about the ancient objects found in the ancient city? Are the visitors of the Archaeological Museum in Naples more satisfied than the site’s ones?
Apparently they are not. 
Even though all the visitors I have spoken with recognised that the Museum shows interesting items, they were all disappointed (to different extents) by their visit.
The followings are the most common complaints

Language: almost everything is written in Italian. If the visitors don’t want to pay for an audioguide, there is no means to access even the most basic information in a language other than Italian. Considering that the Museum is visited by a very international audience this is very difficult to accept.

Brief and generic descriptions: even Italian visitors were disappointed by the information delivered in the museum, not because of the language but because they found it not sufficient and too generic. The labels are scarce and sometimes just made of two or three words (for instance: “vase, Pompeii”).

No information about use: it is difficulty to understand how everyday-life items were used. Not only surgical tools but even kitchen supplies remain somehow mysterious. The visitors can observe the objects but, because it is impossible to imagine their function or their context of use, the audience tends to loose interest in them.
In my opinion, this is really a shame as everyday-life items can be seen as the highest value offered by the archaeological site of Pompeii. In fact, if it is more likely that exceptional items survive because they are valuable and people take care of them, everyday-life objects often disappear completely. Moreover, Pompeii is one of the best places to analyse those objects in a richer context.

G. Brogi, Surgical tools in the Archaeological Museum
of Naples. From the Alinari Collection
The ones listed above were the impressions that my volunteers spontaneously communicated to me. Then I asked them few specific questions focusing on the topics more closely related to my present research. For example, I tried to understand how easy was for the public to establish a connection (both cognitive and visual) between the artefacts and the provenance building. There was a general agreement on this subject and here follows a sum up of what they told me [plus my comments in square brackets].

Little or no information about provenance: the provenance of the objects is not always stated. Often the labels just say “Pompeii” or “Herculaneum”. In some cases the provenance of the artefact is identified with the code of regionis and insulae set by Giuseppe Fiorelli. 
[I believe this choice is already disappointing for visitors who know a little bit of the toponomastic of Pompeii but I find it quite unsuitable for general public. Fiorelli’s code is precise and clever and it is very useful in archaeological excavations, records and studies. However, I don’t think it was meant for communicative purposes. Moreover, considering how peculiar and evocative are the names of many of the houses in Pompeii, using them might allow more people to connect the items with the place they come from.]

Little or no information about the context: not only it is often very difficult to establish a relationship between the object and the building, but also between the object and its context. 
[Mosaics for example, are usually exhibited on walls and there is no mention that they used to be floors’ decoration. Contextual information is almost completely missing. Speaking of mosaics, that are one of my specific target, there is very few information about how they were built, why they where used to decorate spaces, in what kind of houses and rooms they have been found etc... I believe this kind of information would definitely make the object more interesting in the visitor’s eye]

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Pompeii: complaints department #1

Map of the Pompeii available for free
with the entrance ticket
I am preparing the questionnaire I will give to the visitors of the British Museum and make available online for other volunteers.
In the meantime, I want to transcribe some notes about the first information I gathered, very informally, from 
* people I met on site and during my visit at the museum of Naples 
* people I have met in the subsequent days but have agreed to share with me their opinions and experiences.

On site:
People tend to arrive on site with a high level of expectation. Everybody knows about the tragic end of Pompeii and everybody knows that it is one of the most precious archaeological resources of the world. 
I have approached tourists that were not part of a guided tour for obvious reasons. Often they were couples. Some of them had a published touristic guide, others just the leaflet that the ticket office gave them. 
They all appreciated the opportunity to wander freely in the site (they often defined it as “a wonderful opportunity”) but, on the other hand, they all lamented a certain lack of information.
Having some of them long and detailed touristic guides, my reckoning is that they were not just looking for more written information. A couple I interviewed in Herculaneum explicitly said that they don’t like (and didn’t expect) informative panels because they spoil the archaeological landscape. Moreover, I would add that it is very difficult to deal with all the languages spoken by tourists in Pompeii (or even just with the 2 or 3 most common ones). 

One of the most frequent complains I have heard was the difficulty in perceiving the Pompeian dwellings as places that used to be “lived”. All the visitors I have interviewed were, to a certain extent, looking for a sort of emotional experience. But, for a tourist (even a motivated one) it is hard to understand how spaces were used in the past. This seems to provoke a certain level of frustration. Tourists would have liked to see objects (even reproductions) and furnitures in the houses. Some of the interviewed people have even asked me to explain why none of the objects have been left in place. When I told them that original artefacts would be damaged or nicked if left in place, they asked why not even reproductions are now available.
The truth is that is not easy. Pompeii is a large and complex site, very difficult to manage. Every choice seems to make someone unhappy and finding a balance between authenticity and communication is a real challenge.

My intention is not to criticise the policies of the site management, but to report what I have heard from tourists. One of them, for example, suggested that at least one exemplar house should be restored and refurbished to show how they used to be.

One of the most precious information for my research is that, apparently, what tourists miss is both cognitive and emotional. They would like to know more, to understand more. At the same time, they want to “feel” that they are walking the streets of what used to be a city with passers by, sellers, customers, children, animals etc... This is probably why they feel that a book or a panel would not be enough. Objects, on the other hand, appear to have a strong emotional and communicative value. From these first results, it seems that is through objects that the connection with the past works better. 
Probably looking at objects, tourists can imagine ancient inhabitants of the city using them in their everyday life. Or, more simply, the presence of objects is what identifies a space as a domestic space (or a ritual one or a commercial one and so on but always as a "human" space).

Thursday, 6 December 2012

"Pompeii in Fact and Fiction": places as ideas

Portrait of Winckelmann by A. von Maron
I found Pompeii in Fact and Fiction by Wolfgang Leppman when I was working on my MA dissertation (the digital unification of the Temple of Isis in Pompeii and the related frescoes). It has proven to be useful and interesting for many reasons.
In the first place it states, already in 1968, that Pompeii is, at the same time, a geographical place, an historical site and the sum of many interpretations. So much so, that it is often impossible to say when one ends and another begins. If this can be considered problematic by many hard archaeologists, it is to me one of the (many) reasons that make Pompeii a unique place and the ideal candidate for digital projects aiming to deliver complex (i.e. multilayered) information.

The book shows chronologically how tourist’s expectations have been changing during the years. Summarising  roughly, he identifies at least three major trends. 
According to Leppmann, during Neoclassicism tourists expected to see in Pompeii magnificent relics, consistent with the idealisation of the Roman period they had developed during their reverential study of the Classics. It is easy to imagine how disappointed they were when they saw small dwellings or little, asymmetrical temples as the Temple of Isis. This impression was amplified by the absence of most of the large Pompeian villas (still to be uncovered). As Leppamnn remarks, words like “smallness” “narrow” “doll’s house” “mummified” appear often in the first reports.
However, Pompeii (and Herculaneum even more) provoked the enthusiasm of all the art lovers, and influenced a whole trend of figurative art, fashion and interior design.

Madame de Stael as Corinne,
by F.P. Gerard
There is a big change in tourists’ attitude and expectations during the Romanticism. Leppmann identifies the turning point in the publication of the Madame de Stael’s novel “Corinne”. It is probably just a convention and, apparently, the novel itself is more relevant to reception’s studies than to literary ones. However, this is the first famous work of art in which Pompeii is not used as a subject for scholarly descriptions and investigations but as a set for a love story. What is even more important and innovative is that the informative value of the site is definitely less important, in the eyes of the characters (and of the author’s, I assume), than the indefinable emotional connection with the past that they feel there. 
The Neoclassical attempts to visualise how the place might have looked like, are not part of de Stael sensibility (that Leppmann uses as an indicator of the whole Romantic sensibility). The charm of Pompeii is in its being a ruin, a sad relic of a faded past. Tourists go there not to learn about ancient lives but to be touched by their memories and to reflect (very Romanticly) upon caducity of life. This is also why isolated and marginal places (even better with a good view on the terrible Vesuvius) are preferred to functional places like the forum or the basilica. 

Later on, always according to Leppmann, Pompei becomes more and more a literary place, a sort of flexible narrative space that only partially coincides with the physical one. Many novels tell stories about Pompeian ancient inhabitants (living or ghosts) and Pompeii consolidates its place in social imaginary. 
Screenshot from the movie
"Viaggio in Italia" by R. Rossellini
Plus, in the growing trend of oneiric, symbolic and even psychoanalytic novels and short stories, Pompeii became something like an emotions trigger. Its strong and almost violent connection with love, death and sex provokes in the characters intimate experiences, so much intense that sometimes they are simply unbearable.

What is Pompeii today? A source of information to understand ancient art and history? A place where it is possible to experience an emotional connection with past lives? An almost archetypical element of the social subconscious? The crossing point of hundreds of stories?
All of the above and even something new?

It is practically possible to put all this information together and display it in a meaningful way?

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

First impressions: ROOM 13

House of Orpheus, room13's roof
Photo by V. Vitale, 2012

This little room has an access on space 16 and a large window on the garden. The room is very well preserved. The delicate decoration on the yellow and black background are still visible and the colours very bright. It is a shame that the room is now used as storage area. The plastic boxes where some finds are kept lean a bit carelessly against the frescoed wall. Moreover, these boxes are likely to become (if not already) the refuge of little animals (with all the unpleasant consequences).

This room was probably a bedroom, with a nice view on the garden (but not on the fresco, obviously).
The remains of a little roof above the window seems to be original. On the windowsill is displayed a stone ball. I do not know if it is ancient (maybe a relic of the Sulla’s civil war?) and if it has been actually found in the house.

The room is covered by a wooden roof reconstructed for display purposes. This  choice might have positively contributed to the good status of the frescoes.  I assume that the modern roof has been built according to the evidence of the ancient one. Even though the restoration can be considered a bit too invasive, I think it can prove its usefulness. According to the tourist I have interviewed and the literature about Pompeii, the absence of the roofs is one of the elements that make difficult (especially for a tourist) to see the Pompeian ruins as actual houses. 

House of Orpheus, threshold and floor
Photo by V. Vitale, 2012
Under this respect the site of Pompeii is quite different from the one in Herculaneum where roofs, doors and windows (often heavily restored) communicate the sense of domestic spaces that used to be lived by people.

The floor of this room shows a nice and well preserved mosaic in opus signinum and white tesserae. The geometric pattern can still be admired, but it has also been documented by Presuhn (who also published a copy of the room wall decorations).
The room has both a marble threshold that suggest the presence of a wooden door and a quite large window (for such a small room) with a pleasant view on the garden.

It is curious that the restored roof covers not only this room in the house of Orpheus but also the contiguous room that belongs to the House of the Scientists. Actually, this external room also shares an other wall with the House of Orpheus, exactly half of the renowned frescoed one. Does it mean that the two Houses used to be arranged differently? May have they been rearranged after the earthquake?

Presuhn's plan. The area in yellow highlights the
relationship between the House of Orpheus and
the House of the Scientists

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

First impressions: ROOM 18 (viridarium)

House of Orpheus, Pompeii
Looking north from the viridarium
Photo by V. Vitale 2012

Unlike other houses in Pompeii, the House of Orpheus has an almost proper perystilium. It was quite common (at least in Pompeii) pretending to have a big and expensive house arranging carefully the elements that people were able to see from the street or from the tablinum. It is not rare in Pompeii to see houses with just two or three columns, but placed in a way to trick the passers by and let them believe that they were looking at an entire colonnade.

It is not the case of the Houseof Orpheus. The owner was rich enough to afford two whole sides of a perystilium. The half colonnade is large enough (7 columns on two sides) to allow visual access to the garden from both the tablinum and the triclinium (that are on the same vertical line). Both the two spaces offer a view on the house’s most precious decoration (straight view from the tablinum, diagonal view from the triclinium).

House of Orpheus
Old undated photograph. Courtesy of Society
 of Antiquaries. Fox Collection
From pompeiiinpictures
The slightly diagonal arrangement of the entrance corridor may seem an oddity until it is not considered as an element of the visual line that passes through the atrium (with the fountain), through the tablinum, the viridarium and ends on the big frescoed wall. The fresco’s decoration with plant, birds and animals was very likely to interact graciously with the real plants (and probably real animals like little birds or butterflies) of the garden. Moreover, the painted water in the landscape was probably interacting, on a echoing game of real and fictional, with the water sprouting from the fountain. 

Today, the trees and the plants (mostly myrtle) grown in the garden make quite difficult to see clearly the architectonical elements in the garden. It seems to be a water feature in opus signinum running around the edge of the viridarium. 

Thursday, 22 November 2012

First impressions: ROOM 10 (+ 5 and 11)

House of Orpheus, looking west from room 10
Photo courtesy of Pompeiiinpictures
This room is very likely to be the triclinium of the house. There are no signs of the three couches that identify that kind of spaces. However, the room has a privileged view on the relatively large garden and colonnade. According to Pompeian conventions, the triclinium was usually arranged to offer the best view that the house could offer. Looking at the plan, the room could appear to be not centred with the garden.

However, we should bare in mind that the best view was a privilege of the main guest. Thus, the best view had to be maximised for the pleasure of the eyes of the main guest. Conventionally, the most important guest seated at the right edge of the central couch. From that position the view falls nicely on the main focus of the front fresco: the scene with Orpheus and the animals.

The room has an elegant marble threshold that still shows the sign of a big door.
In this room are also still visible traces of the wall frescoes. The remains of the vivid colours allow to rebuild, partially, the decorative pattern of the fresco. (Preshun suggests a virtual restoration, but I have no means to assess his reliability). The lower part of the fresco still shows the main lines of delicate figures of birds (Phoenixes?) and plants.

House of Orpheus, room 10 detail
Photo by V. Vitale, 2012
House of Orpheus, room 10 detail
Photo by V. Vitale, 2012

Rooms 5 and 11 are other two very narrow passages, running at the sides of room 10, which is identifiable as the triclinium. At least one of them, if not both, might have been passages for slaves in charge of serving meals to their masters. Passage 5 is connected with both room 10, the atrium (room 1) and the perystilium.

First impressions: ROOM 4 (tablinum)

House of Orpheus,
threshold of room 4 (from atrium)
Photo by V. Vitale 2012
The large and elegant tablinum could be accessed from the atrium (by guestes and clients) and seen from the street (by passers by and neighbours).

The floor was decorated with a black and white mosaic. Unfortunately, it is not entirely visible anymore, so we do not know if there were more elaborate decorations in the middle of it. What can still be seen is the white background and a black double border.

Moreover, the mosaic clearly marks the change of use in the space. Even though there are no (more?) physical doors, a decorated threshold with a geometric pattern (always in b&w) identifies the passage from the atrium to the tablinum. 

House of Orpheus, plan by E. Presuhn
Representation of the view alignement
A similar feature, but with a different pattern, marks the end of the tablinum and the beginning of the garden. The garden itself appears to be not only an autonomous part of the house but also a scenographic background for the tablinum.

According to the conventional disposition of the rooms, the richest and most impressive features were always the most visible for an external (and even and accidental) observer. 
This explains why the tablinum is not at the centre of the house, but  it is visually aligned with the main entrance. The alignment can be more clearly seen on the plan published by Presuhn.

First impressions: ROOM 6

Room 6 is a relatively large room. Like room 3, it has three walls and there is no sign of a shutting door on the fourth one. The floor, that is unfortunately visible only in very small and damage bits almost entirely covered in dirt and pebbles, is very similar to the one in room 3. The similar decoration (cocciopesto with a white pattern) could point at a visual and structural relationship with room 3. However, the two spaces are not geometrically identical (or even remarkably similar). 

House of Orpheus, looking south from room 6
Photo by V. Vitale, 2012
On the contrary, room 6 shows quite a peculiar feature that I was not able to identify and that occupies almost half of the space. A ridge (high roughly 20 cm) goes along the room’s three walls and an additional feature (same hight of the ridge) closes the rectangular shape on the fourth side. 

To me, it looks to big to be a bed and too small to be a triclinium (moreover, room 10 with its view on the garden is much more likely to have been the triclinium). The potential view from the unidentified feature in room 6 is not particularly interesting. It includes part of the fountain, but without its visual interaction with the garden and the colonnade. It makes me think that it was more likely to be something to be seen than an observing point of view.
I have been suggested that it could even been a water feature, but I couldn’t find any actual evidence to support that idea.

In both the maps I have found, the feature is recorded and appears to be evenly vertically divided. However, that division is now no more visible on site. At least not to my archaeological-untrained eye.

First impressions: ROOM 3

On the south side of the atrium, going towards the tablinum, there is room 3. I couldn’t find any sign of the existence of a door (pivots etc...) but, of course, it does not mean that there wasn’t any.
Some bits of the floor made in opus signinum (or cocciopesto) are still visible and they show traces of a nice decorative pattern of white tesserae. There are no windows at all, but the room is open on the atrium. So far, I have no hypotheses about the use of this space. It looks like it is facing a similar one on the other side of the atrium (room 6). Is it possible that the two rooms were functionally or visually related?

First impressions: ROOM 1 (atrium)

House of Orpheus, south wall of the atrium
Photo by V. Vitale 2012

Room one is the big atrium. It gives light to the many rooms around it that often have no windows at all. Its doors appear to be quite tall. They are not very wide (about 115-118 cm) but, in my opinion, they give a sense of elegance end elevation to the all building.
The door on the south side of the atrium appears to be perfectly symmetrical with the door on the north side (entrance to room 7). Moreover it points out the relationship between the House of Orpheus and the little commercial-industrial complex confining with it (VI, 14, 18 and VI, 14, 19). Despite the fact that the relationship between the two spaces looks fairly evident, I haven’t found so far any explicit mention to that in the literature. 

Unlike many other rich houses in Pompeii, the House of Orpheus has no business area in the traditional sense. It looks as if the owner didn’t want to show any explicit connection with the business. On the other hand, the big door leans directly to the commercial area, and part of the house was visible (with the doors open) from the little commercial/industrial complex. 
The high door on the south side of room 1 also suggests the existence of a second door, symmetrical to the other door on the north side of the atrium (entrance to room 8). The former is no more open, but it is easy to see where it used to be. 
So far, I have no means to say if it has been closed before or after the excavation.

First impressions: ROOM 0 (entrance)

The house of Orpheus is presently closed to the public, probably because of the fragility of the surviving frescoes (progressively detaching from the masonry, possibly due to humidity and infiltrations).

House of Orpheus, looking west from the entrance
Photo by M. Amodio, 1850-60. Fratelli Alinari Collection
The house is not huge but still quite big, definitely above the average of a Pompeian dwelling. It is not situated in the very centre of the city but it is still close enough to the latter to be considered the residence of a quite rich family.
It has a relatively wide entrance with a pronounced slope, going up. This is the place where the Mosaic of the Guard  Dog used to be.
It was probably the first thing that visitors and passers by were supposed to see. But I will write more about the mosaic and its context later.
The entrance’s corridor is not straight. This is not strange in Pompeian houses and could be a strategy for the architect to lead the gaze of the observer towards the most important features of the house and to highlight their best qualities.
From the street, the view included the mosaic and, going up, the beautiful and very well preserved impluvium: white marble, a nice ridge, many details, a central hole that suggests a fountain, a marble pedestal that could have held a decorative element or an other water feature (possibly both). Behind the pedestal, there is what looks like a well, also made of elegant white marble
At the back of the water feature, the gaze falls on the large tablinum and the garden. Nicely framed by the entrance to the garden, it is possible to see the famous fresco with Orpheus and the animals. Probably, more than the mythological scene, the observer from the street was invited to look at a combination of real and painted natural elements: plants, birds and the water sources. The decorative element that might have been placed on the pedestal could have been another element of this part real and part illusional scenography.

According to my perception, the architectonical structure looks very harmonic and well balanced.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012


I have taken a first photographic documentation of the site with a small compact camera (Casio 10 Mpx). The quality of the outcome is not refined enough to be used as a source for the model’s texturing. Moreover, the camera only produces valuable pictures when the light conditions are very good. 
However, I am not interested in modelling and texturising the House of Orpheus how it is now (it could be relevant, for example, for conservation purposes). I am more interested in observing the architectonic features and try to understand why the different spaces of the house were organised in a certain way and what possible uses they might have allowed. Thus, my photographs have more a documenting purpose, to help me remember and visualise the characteristics of the different spaces of the house.
If I will need more detailed pictures in a future development of my project I will use a more suitable equipment.

Plan of the House of Orpheus
Courtesy of Pompeiiinpictures
Plan of the House of Orpheus
Emil Preshun

To organise and catalogue my pictures I have used, as a starting point, the numerical naming convention I have found in the map of the house available on the website pompeiinpictures.
As the website states, the map is only a reference to browse the pictures of the online collection. For this reason the map shows few inaccuracies (many rooms have “regularised” shapes, some features are omitted etc...). 
After I had already started my cataloguing, I have found a more detailed plan, published by Emil Preshun in Pompeji. Die Neuesten Ausgrabungen (available on
However, having measured the house on site with an electronic distance measurer (Bosh DLR130) I am thinking of designing a new plan with Adobe Illustrator or, as my supervisor suggested, directly with 3D Studio Max.

Monday, 19 November 2012

Orpheus and the Dog

Mosaic of the Guard Dog.
Pompeii, House of Orpheus VI, 14, 20
From British Museum website

My first idea was to choose the object and the related building to model and unify according to the results of my preliminary interviews. However, being the BM exhibition forthcoming, I could not ask the visitors (or potential visitors) which ones were the most relevant artefacts on display.
I have decided to start from the items highlight on the museum website and, among them, I have focused on the “Mosaic of a Guard Dog” from the House of Vesonius Primus (also known as The House of Orpheus).
My choice was based on the following criteria:
- I have a better knowledge of the Pompeian cityscape than the Herculaneum one. Having a limited time to complete my project, I thought it was more sensible and effective to maximise my previous experiences,
- I wanted to take hard measurements of the chosen building and it was easier for me to receive a permission for Pompeii,
- The artefacts that will be displayed are not yet in the British Museum. It was unlikely to receive special permission from the other Museums to acquire data about the items exhibited in glass cabinets, so I decided to focus on the flat ones that are easy to photograph and document even without special permissions.
- The image of the black dog is one of the most famous and it has been reproduced in  many books, guides and memorabilia.

The characteristics of the Mosaic of the Dog and the House of Orpheus made them the most sensible choice. Furthermore, an other very iconic Pompeian object that will be part of the BM exhibition such as the plaster cast of the agonising dog comes from the same House. Even though it wasn’t possible for me to acquire data about the cast of the unlucky animal, its story can be easily connected to the virtual model.

However, I am not forgetting user’s needs and expectations. I have started conducting unstructured interviews with visitors:
of the sites of Pompeii and Herculaneum
of the National Museum of Naples
of the Virtual Museum of Herculaneum (MAV)

in order to gather the first information about what different audiences think of the ancient remains and what kind of experience, real and virtual, they expect during the visit.

Monday, 15 October 2012

From Pompeii to the Trobriands

The baker Terentius Neo and his Wife
From wikipedia commons
As soon as it was available on the British Museums website, I have downloaded and read the press release about the exhibition to find out something more about the concepts underlying it.
According to what I have read, key features appear to be domestic spaces and ordinary lives of the people in Pompeii and Herculaneum.

Apparently, this exhibition is going exactly in the direction I hoped for my project: material culture or, in other words, that fascinating intersection between archaeology and anthropology.

What is material culture about?
It is a bit like Digital Humanities, nobody exactly knows. I like to think that material culture is the study of what we leave behind us when we (as single persons or societies) pass away. I am aware that cultures are not only material and a lot of our heritage is not-physical or, better, non tangible. I am also aware that, as Malinowski remarks, a material object is meaningless without its immaterial context. But this is exactly the point. 
In his famous Argonauts of the Western Pacific (1922:105), Malinowski says:

"A canoe is an item of material culture, and as such it can be described, photographed and even bodily transported into a museum. But [...] the ethnographic reality of the canoe would not be brought much nearer to a student at home, even by placing a perfect specimen right before him.

The canoe is made for a certain use, and with a definite purpose; it is a means to an end [...]. In the study of the economic purposes for which a canoe is made, of the various uses to which it is submitted, we find the first approach to a deeper ethnographic treatment. Further sociological data, referring to its ownership, accounts of who sails in it, and how it is done; information regarding the ceremonies and customs of its construction, a sort of typical life history of a native craft all that brings us nearer still to the understanding of what his canoe truly means to the native. 

Even this, however, does not touch the most vital reality of a native canoe. For a craft, whether of bark or wood, iron or steel, lives in the life of its sailors, and it is more to a sailor than a mere bit of shaped matter. To the native, not less than to the white seaman, a craft is surrounded by an atmosphere of romance, built up of tradition and of personal experience. It is an object of cult and admiration, a living thing, possessing its own individuality."

Trobriand Islands. A traditional canoe.
From Art Pacific
How many things of a dead person or culture can we understand looking at its objects?
I have worked once on the book collection of a famous Italian director. After that experience, I felt, irrationally, that I knew him deeply. It was one of the most vivid experience about how powerful objects can be.
In an archaeological context, how many things can we understand looking at an ancient artefact? Why the maker chose a specific material or a particular shape, why one section looks more consumed than the others, why it was stored in a certain place and where was it found?
What I have learnt is that we often don’t have univocal answers to all these questions. Nevertheless, artefacts (big or small, monumental or ordinary, precious or cheap) are kind of “instruction books” (to quote Rapoport not literally) to understand past cultures. Or at least try to.
The British Museum seems to explore this kind of approach quite successfully. I was reading today, on their blog, the “life-story” of the Amara pot.

Going back to Malinowski, how much do we lose when we look at the object separated from its context? I think this is one of the better potential applications of 3D visualisation, digital and virtual technologies. I believe that all the audiences would understand a lot more about, for example, the portrait of Terentius Neo and his wife (or the Amara Pot) if they could not only see the object exhibited in the museum but also, somehow, access a visualisation of it put in its context: that “domestic space” lived by “ordinary people” that is supposed to be one of the strongest concept of the whole exhibition. 

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Nice to meet you

My name is Valeria Vitale, I have just finished an MA in Digital Humanities at King’s College London. My background is in multimedia and public engagement and I used to work in Italy for major theatres and museums.  During my MA I started working with 3D visualisation and I became convinced that it can be an extraordinary means to communicate and promote cultural heritage.
I am particularly interested in the use of 3D technologies to build a visual and  cognitive bridge between the archeological site and the related artefacts displayed in museums that are often located in different cities (or even nations). I also think that digital learning environments can be very effective in reinforcing the emotional connection between visitors and ancient objects.

Thanks to the V-Must program, I am back to King’s College for a 3 months internship with King’s Visualisation Lab, under the supervision of Drew Baker and Martin Blazeby. My case study is the British Museum’s forthcoming exhibition “Life and Death. Pompeii and Herculaneum”. Have you heard about it? If you didn’t, have a look at the website.

I am writing this blog to keep records of all the steps of my work, from the readings to the documentation of the 3D model according to the London Charter guidelines.
If you have questions, suggestions or comments feel free to post a comment.