April 25, 2014 by Richard Furstein
Have you ever felt alone in a crowded room, alienated from people doing exactly the same thing you are? Alienation doesn’t have to be formal, like getting the silent treatment. Sometimes, it can be as subtle as being the only one without a cellphone or an MP3 player.
Over the weekend, my parents and I went to see “One Day in Pompeii” at The Franklin Institute. The exhibit had over 150 artifacts recovered from the Italian city, ranging from furniture to medical equipment. Innovative mixed media like short films, personal audio tour devices and wall posters adorned the exhibit, thoroughly identifying every piece on display. As I stood in a room full of people listening into their earpieces, staring at video screens and silently reading the posters, I felt completely alienated. My usually talkative parents — who make every opportunity a teachable moment for my young brothers — were so distracted by their audio tours that they hardly bothered to keep pace with me.
In American culture, there are times and places where it is socially preferable to be alienated. When we go to theaters, we tend to think of viewing movies and stage shows as a personal experience. When we enter bookstores and libraries, we show other patrons our respect by speaking in low tones. In art galleries, too, Americans tend to abandon their normally brash behavior to maintain an atmosphere of contemplation. And while that behavior is all well and good in those venues, The Franklin Institute was not intended for silent contemplation.
This alienating atmosphere does not typically describe The Franklin Institute, which makes use of presenters and activity stations. Much like the Philadelphia Zoo and the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, The Franklin Institute normally employs human guides to engage visitors with hands-on activities and enlightening discussions. In contrast, this exhibit’s staff deployment seemed as alienating as the subject matter. Having visited the actual archaeological site at Pompei (the modern spelling of the settlement at Pompeii), I noticed some major differences in the American and Italian narratives on Pompeii. While the dates were the same, the meanings associated with Pompeii varied widely. The Franklin Institute depicted Pompeii as an exotic, almost idyllically oblivious town afflicted by a great tragedy. It emphasized Pompeii’s complete disappearance from history, like a real-life Atlantis. In a single day — the story goes — a vibrant Roman city was swallowed up by the forces of nature.
Absent from this narrative is any mention of Pompeii’s neighboring cities around the Bay of Naples, where horrified observers documented the eruption and its aftermath. Visitors to the exhibit who lack knowledge of Italy would have no idea that Pompeii is and was only about 16 miles from the older and larger city of Naples (then Neapolis), because Naples is never mentioned. The Franklin Institute’s narrative positions Pompeii as physically, temporally and culturally isolated. While this makes the tragedy easier to romanticize, it also prevents us from actually connecting it to our own lives. This, combined with the lack of live staff members, made the entire exhibit seem hard to connect with, and frankly unenjoyable.
Though the narrative on Pompeii presents its own issues, my real complaint with the exhibit was the atmosphere of silence that permeated the event. It is easy to say that people’s choice to be silent is not necessarily connected to the space they occupy, but The Franklin Institute’s aggressive use of multimedia almost certainly precipitated the alienating atmosphere in the exhibit. Rather than investing in fancier graphics, the Institute would be better served to employ actual presenters with artifacts, activities and discussions about Pompeiian culture. This method of presentation engages and educates visitors, and makes it more accessible to people across the age spectrum. Science and history are subjects best taught through discussion and practice, not passive reading or listening. In addition, it doesn’t hurt the job market for educators looking for work, like this writer.
Richard Furstein is a senior anthropology major at Drexel University. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.