I've been reading about the Museum's Interpretive Theatre program lately and for me, the most challenging aspect is the complex of approaches to the Rediscovering Pompeii exhibition of 1995. The exhibition included very beautiful objects and interesting computer interactions, but there was no living, breathing society to provide a point of reference, so the Interpretive Theatre program set out to provide not one, but three.
They drew on the Philogeles, a fourth century book of terrible Roman jokes, to create a cabaret called Death and Taxes. It was designed with the aim of convincing a younger audience that people who lived long ago were not so different from people today. Its cast of characters included a laughter-loving volcano and two time-travelling archaeologists as well as witches and senators, and the show featured songs, some very bad jokes, and a chase routine. Although it highlighted different views of history by contrasting social attitudes and religious beliefs over time, it didn’t come to any conclusions, and asked the audience to visit the exhibition afterwards for ‘factual rectification’.
Then there was Vox Populi –a series of monologues performed inside the exhibition six days a week. The performers didn’t pretend they were actually in Pompeii; instead they presented a variety of voices and different points of view, some from original source material such as Juvenal and Petronius, some more modern views of the past and some contemporary monologues. They were rather unpredictable and didn’t pretend they were the last word on the subject.
The third part of the program, Then the Mountain Comes, showed the consequences of disaster and history from several different points of view. It was performed both inside and outside the exhibition; it opened in a crypt just after the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79, and wound up at an exhibition on Pompeii in Naples in 1912, with a group of British tourists. The exhibition provided a wonderful backdrop to the show, and highlighted the issues it raised; namely art, history, love and death. It was performed after the Museum closed to regular visitors, so the audience came specifically to see the show, which was regularly booked out.
As the head of Education, Caroline MacLulich, put it: ‘we erected and left a large set in the middle of our biggest open space for eight weeks, we used the Museum and the priceless exhibition at night, we were critical of much museum practice in the play and of some of the pretensions associated with objects’. All of this must have been incredibly disruptive for the Museum but it stood firmly behind the theatre program. I wish I’d seen the performances because they sound to me as though they were well worth the disruption.