Empty, Mute, and Disrespected: Pompeii as a failing cultural organization

by cv harquail on May 6, 2010

[I can’t really find a link between these ideas and concepts of authenticity, but I had to write this anyway. So go easy on me with this one…]

My recent visit to Pompeii offered me a great example of an organization that isn’t working.

Cultural Organizations Must Work on Two Dimensions

Every organization has to work on two dimensions– it has to create a decent “product”, and it has to sustain itself well.  Cultural institutions have to produce ‘culture’ that meets certain aesthetic, expressive and pedagogic values, and these organizations have to reflect these values as they get things done. Cultural institutions have a unique kind of authenticity challenge.

Whenever I go to a cultural institution — a museum, a performance, an historic site — I experience them on each of these distinct dimensions. First, I experience their product/ions as a guest, patron, consumer, enthusiast and/or student. I expect that the goal of any cultural institution is to influence its patrons, to move them or change them or educate them, and so I open myself to this experience.

I’m there to absorb whatever it is that the cultural institution exists to share with me. I read the program notes, I use the acoustiguides, and I ask questions on the docents’ tours. I stay awake during the second act.fresco pompeii.jpg

But, and often to my family’s dismay, I also experience cultural institutions as having central aesthetic, pedagogic and expressive expectations regarding the ways that they get things done. I experience cultural institutions not only as a patron, but also as an organizational analyst.

Given my penchant for “sticking my nose into your business“, I always want to understand the organization that surrounds, supports, and creates the cultural experience. I want to know how they do what they do, what works, how they express their caring, how they manage competing pressures, stakeholder and publics. I think about how their café or gift shop extends the institution’s mission. I chat with the docents, the guides, and even the other patrons. (This is what usually causes my family’s dismay.)

I want to figure out how the cultural institutions do what they do, and why. I want to understand how they ‘work’.

“Pompeii”, as a cultural organization, does not work.

As I mentioned in my previous post on the re-branding of Pompeii, my family recently visited Venice, Rome, and Pompeii during spring break. As a mom and a tourist, the trip was all about learning and enjoying. As an organizational analyst, the trip was all about — well, let me just say, it was interesting.

At Pompeii, I was disappointed disturbed by what I experienced as an almost complete absence of curatorial effort.

Curatorial effort includes two things:

(1) caring for and protecting the ‘culture’ that is being shared, and
(2) presenting the ‘culture’ in a way that helps to shape the visitors’ experience so that they do more than look, buy a snack, and complain that their feet hurt.

At Pompeii, I saw little curatorial effort, either of the caring kind or the presenting kind. (Note caveats at end of post.)

The Absence of Care

Pompeii is a world historical treasure, but it doesn’t seem to be treated that way. At Pompeii, I saw no guards, no security equipment, few if any cordons, barriers, or covers to protect the frescoes or mosaics. I saw no signs to indicate how not to treat the site.

Instead, in the absence of obvious efforts by the “organization” behind Pompeii, what I saw were people grinding out their cigarette butts on the 2200-year-old mosaic thresholds, students scraping their backpacks against the frescoes on the walls of the ruins as they roughhoused during a class trip, and visitors pushing aside makeshift barriers so that they could step up to the frescoed walls, take flash pictures, and actually touch the paintings themselves.

There was graffiti scraped onto a few walls. Trash, cigarette butts, and chewing gum randomly littered the ruins themselves. Perhaps the most disheartening thing that I saw were candy wrappers that had been thrown behind the plexiglass wall around the row of plaster casts of dead citizens, tucked away in the corner of the garden.

[I wanted guards like the ones at the Palazzo Ducale in Venice, who shushed the noisy family into submissive whispering, and blocked the camera lens of that guy who insisted on using his flash- his flash! – to take photos of tapestries. ]

The disrespect broke my heart.

The Absence of Curation

Given that Pompeii is a “world heritage cultural site”  I expected that there would be a lot going on at Pompeii. Ranging from day-to-day life in the Roman Empire, the events of Mt. Vesuvius, the discovery of the site itself, and the social & physical science of the excavations themselves, there is a lot to learn here.

Moreover, we were visiting during the annual Cultural Heritage Week, so I anticipated some special events, like maybe extra tours or special signage.

What we found instead was city that felt as advertised: dead.

Pompeii, laid out before us, was inert. Passive. Empty. Silent.

gate pompeii.jpgDespite admission being free this week, there were few visitors, and no guided tours (either public or private).

There were no historic interpreters, no displays of interiors, no artifacts, no museum-like displays, no 3-D models of what the city might have looked like, no diagrams of neighborhoods, no placards or descriptive signage.

Nothing. Nada. Niente.

Armed with a map presented only in one language (Italian) the average visitor was looking at a bunch of stone foundations, a few frescoes, a street grid, and the very impressive chariot ruts on the paved streets. Once again, it was the acoustiguide and my kids who saved the day with a few interesting details.

What was Pompeii there to create?

I couldn’t tell if the curatorial strategy was “old-fashioned” or “postmodern”.

If the strategy was old-fashioned, I guess I was supposed to have used my Baedecker to educate myself (just like in A Room With A View). My bad.

If the curatorial strategy was supposed to be postmodern, I should have inferred whatever I wanted from the metathemes that I discerned.

Then again, the curatorial non-presence might have been due to the site’s organization being completely and horribly underfunded. If that were the case, I’d have expected an explanation and a donation box.

But really, what I missed was on-site, interactive explanation. I missed someone or something that could address the range of questions that we had.  I wished for available WiFi so that we could Google.it. *

There were so many themes, so many possible tours, so many places you could have put a nice little sign, so many opportunities for volunteer docents… I have a few friends who are curators/museum professionals, and I wondered how they might analyze the Pompeii experience… was there something that I lacked, as a tourist, that the site was expecting?

I admit that my expectations of curatorial effort have been shaped by visits to Mount Vernon, Williamsburg, and hometown favorite Monticello. These privately owned sites are well cared for, well curated, interactive, educational, & interesting.

indi pompeii.jpgI found myself wandering around, wondering:

What kind of organization needs to be here, to take care of Pompeii and to curate an experience that would influence visitors, teach them, move them, change them or inspire them?

I was open to the experience, but I wanted to experience something in addition to the emptiness.

Some Caveats:

  • Maybe I was expecting something that was/is “too American” or “too bourgeois” to be found in Italy.
  • Maybe the government just doesn’t have the funding.
  • Maybe there is no private foundation that would support Pompeii.
  • Maybe there are no retirees willing to serve as docents.
  • Maybe we were there on a bad day.
  • Maybe I was inadequately observant, and I missed something.

I would still count the visit to Pompeii as a highlight of our trip… oddly enough … because the emptiness really pushed me as a parent to initiate a conversation among our family about what we could learn and what we could appreciate, given the limits of what we were able to see.


* (Get the joke? We were in Italy, so “.it”. My girls thought that was funny.)


Leila Monaghan May 7, 2010 at 9:20 am

I have never been to Pompeii but I know the feeling of disappointment at badly organized museums and exhibits. I want a slice of culture, a view into how another world operated. Time lines and basic information about the practices and beliefs of people are essential. I hate a jumble of unexplained objects that gives no sense of who people were. I’m sure the sheer mass of objects at Pompeii gives some insights but a decent brochure and/or knowledgeable docents would do wonders. This does bring up the question, though, of how to improve Pompeii in particular and if a random selection (of probably not rich) Americans could make a difference.

Rob Gilliam May 18, 2010 at 12:19 pm

Prospect (“serious” British magazine) carried an article on Pompeii and Herculaneum, and the challenges they face, in the April 2010 issue: http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/2010/04/ashes-to-ashes-the-latter-day-ruin-of-pompeii/

(article appears to be free)

cv harquail May 18, 2010 at 4:47 pm


I think the author must have been at Pompeii the same time as I was. Maybe he was that British guy who told the teenagers to ‘Back away from those frescos, boys”?

In addition to being fabulous b/c it supports all of the concerns I noted (and more), this article makes a great contribution by describing how and why Hurculaneum is in so much better shape — and some of the organizational reasons behind that. Thanks so much for this gift!

physician assistant July 4, 2010 at 8:15 pm

Great site. A lot of useful information here. I’m sending it to some friends!

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