Monday, June 16, 2008

Pompeiian Correctness

The Pompeii exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston ends in a few days. It’s an enjoyable and often striking collection of materials of all kinds, with lots of visitors. The displays are supposed to help us…connect with the victims whose hopes and fears were not so unlike ours today – that what the Museum’s website says.

After you complete the second-floor exhibit, there’s a short film with voiceover, demonstrating what happens when a volcano like Mt Vesuvius blows up – as it did in the Year 79. After the shots of booming pyroclastic flows and solidified tephra, the voiceover solemnly announces that because so many lives were lost centuries ago in Pompeii and Herculaneum, we (the exhibition’s viewing public) should be careful where we interact with nature.

This is crap. The mountain’s “green, wooded slopes” were home to farms, fields, animals and people for centuries. Until the storied eruption in 79 AD, Vesuvius hadn’t blown in 700 years.

MFAH did a fine job marketing this exhibition. But the victims’ “hopes and fears” are nothing like our own; the eruption caught the citizens of Pompeii completely by surprise.

Frankly, I wished MFAH would go startle somebody else with its witless pronouncements of ecological peril.

Painting: The Eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, 1777, Pierre-Jacques Volaire.


Steve Collier said...

Great blog, enjoyed the articles. One particular item caught my eye on the Pompeii article. And for what it’s worth, my observations follow.

I understand your point concerning people and their homes, villages, etc., 700 years ago. Not much was known/understood about volcanoes at that period.

But now there is much more scientific knowledge on this subject as you well know. My brief experience and limited knowledge about volcanoes does not qualify me deeply, more like enough information to be dangerous, but I did gain some knowledge and valuable information in the NW and what had happened 100s of years ago will occur again in time. Building in areas where there is evidence puts people and towns in a very vulnerable situation. Mt. Rainer is past due and when it does, it is predicted that it will be quiet large, larger than Mt. St. Helens. It will result in a lahar flow (destructive mud flow) that, according to the in-depth knowledgeable materials I came in contact with, will destroy and kill thousands of people.

The “known path” that volcanologists or whatever they’re called are uncovering – as evidenced from the last one – will travel through existing towns and cities which have allowed businesses and residents to build and I am talking about major companies. They have an evacuation plan but it is not going to be valid once you have 100s of 1,000s of folks heading down two-lane roadways to get to already heavy traffic on limited four lanes and clogging them up faster than a toilet.

Look what happen to Houston when Hurricane Rita came through. It’ll be worse in the NW region. And they know about it. Find a bar; order whatever you want and let the mud flow – ‘cause you ain’t getting’ out.

It amazes me with all the efforts and finances to learn about our planet and we just go about our business as if “it won't happen to me or in my lifetime.” Many societies have vanished due to little knowledge. We have much and still don’t listen.

I think the point the museum is making, paying attention to what nature is telling us and take actions to not be in the way is a valid point. Somethings in nature we cannot predict due to lack of valid information. But things we do know about, “we should be careful where we interact with nature.”

Richard Laurence Baron said...

Steve: That's a fair cop. Your thoughtful response made me realize I was being unfair, especially in light of California forest fires and Gulf Coast hurricane damage.

Despite such threats, people continue to live in places that have become bigger targets because of growing infrastructure development. We can't all move to Mesa, AZ - rated the "safest place" in the US. What do we do to mitigate the impacts of nature?