Pompeii exhibit at The Leonardo opens on Saturday

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Pelta with Masks, part of Pompeii: The Exhibition, opening Saturday at The Leonardo in Salt Lake City on Thursday Nov. 21, 2019.

August 24, A.D. 79, was a normal day in Pompeii.

People cooked their meals, worked at the seaport, relaxed in the public baths, prayed to their gods, and performed the normal tasks of 25,000 residents in a bustling commercial center in southern Italy, in the heart of the Roman empire.

They knew their geological neighbor, Mount Vesuvius, could rumble — there was a significant earthquake 17 years before. But on that day, the mountain erupted, killing the people of Pompeii with fire and noxious gas, and burying the city in 12 feet of ash.

Life in the city, and the disaster that caused so many deaths, are recounted in “Pompeii: The Exhibition,” a touring show opening Saturday at The Leonardo Museum of Innovation and Creativity in Salt Lake City.

The exhibition shows the day-to-day life of the people of Pompeii, and how it all stopped when Vesuvius erupted.

“We like to focus on storytelling, and not just objects in cases,” said Troy Collins, head of exhibits for IMG, the company that produced “Pompeii.”

The objects are in nearly pristine condition — a combination of being perfectly preserved in compact ash for more than 1,600 years, and the fact that they were made from marble, bronze and iron.

The first gallery, dominated by a life-size marble sculpture of the goddess Aphrodite, approximates a Roman villa atrium. Small figurines of Jupiter, Mercury, Minerva and others, near a mosaic depicting a gorgon, demonstrate the gods and mythological creatures the Romans believed in.

Up the escalator, a series of galleries feature instruments of daily life. One room has bronze garden figures, fountain sculptures of a goat, a raven and a bull. Another, showing work life on Pompeii’s busy seaport, has fish hooks, an anchor and a balance used to weigh goods — complete with marble counterweights with Roman numerals engraved on them (“II” for two pounds, “V” for five pounds).


A display of more than 150 artifacts, preserved for centuries by volcanic ash, showing life in the ancient Roman city of Pompeii.

Where • The Leonardo Museum of Innovation and Creativity, 209 E. 500 South, Salt Lake City

When • Saturday, Nov. 23, through May 3, 2020

Hours • 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Mondays through Sundays. Closed on Nov. 28 (Thanksgiving), Dec. 24 (Christmas Eve) and Dec. 25 (Christmas Day)

Tickets • $24.99 for adults, $19.99 for children (3 to 15), and $21.99 for seniors (65 and up) and military with valid ID; $9.99 for Leonardo members. Advance ticket reservations recommended; go to theleonardo.org/pompeii or to The Leonardo box office.

Group rates • $18.99 for 15 or more; $8.99 for students in groups

Several galleries are filled with household items: terra cotta pitchers, a bronze skillet, colanders with tiny holes like tea strainers.

Jackie Hoff, registrar for the exhibition, noted that many of these items would fit in with things found in a 21st century kitchen. “They’re not just from the past — they’re currently being used,” she said.

There are galleries that show the recreation and entertainment of the Roman empire. There are artifacts from public baths, and from gladiatorial arenas. There’s even a gallery with Roman erotica, in fresco paintings and bronze phalluses. (The artifacts would probably earn a PG-13 rating in a movie. A sign informs museum goers they can turn left to avoid the erotic gallery, or turn right to see it.)

Back down the escalator, museum goers are directed to a 4-D theater that depicts the eruption of Vesuvius. A short computer-animated film plays on a screen, showing a plume of ash rising into the air, sending heat and gases into the city — followed by a massive ash cloud that buries the city. Smoke machines and light flashes add to the illusion of living through the eruption.

Then the screen rises up, and the final gallery is visible. Here, a visitor sees the casts of the victims of Vesuvius. The figures are shown laying down, or huddled into themselves, in a futile effort to block out the ash and fumes.

How these casts came to exist is a fascinating detail of archaeology. When excavators found the skeletons, they also found empty space around them in the compacted ash. That space is where flesh burned away or decomposed over the centuries.

Plaster of Paris was poured into those empty spaces, preserving the positions of the people as they died. In some cases, bits of metal — the iron tread of a boy’s sandal, or the bronze studs on a guard dog’s collar — became lodged in the plaster, a permanent reminder of the sudden ending to the life stories of Pompeii’s residents.

The Leonardo is the last stop for this touring exhibition, Collins said, after shows in Philadelphia, Los Angeles, St. Louis and other cities. The 150 or so artifacts will go back to their owner, the Naples National Archaeological Museum, after the exhibition closes at The Leonardo on May 3, 2020.