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?