OMSI exhibit shows volcanic destruction of Pompeii 2,000 years ago

The attraction at the Portland museum also has regional significance

By Tom Vogt, Columbian Science, Military & History Reporter



If You Go

 What: “Pompeii: The Exhibition.”

 Where: Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, 1945 S.E. Water Ave., Portland.

 When: Through Oct. 22; summer museum hours are 9:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Mondays through Sundays.

 Admission: $26 adults, $17 youth (3 to 13), $22 seniors (63 and older), includes general museum admission.

 Information: 503-797-4000,

PORTLAND — The body casts of people who were killed 1,938 years ago testify to the deadly history of volcanoes.

Those human forms represent the final moments of six unfortunate residents of Pompeii who died when Mount Vesuvius erupted on Aug. 24 in the year 79.

They are part of a new attraction at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, “Pompeii: The Exhibition.”

Other artifacts show how the residents of Pompeii lived, including arts (fresco paintings and mosaics) and entertainment (bronze gladiator armor).

But there also is a nod to the volcanic present and future of the Northwest, and it is provided by U.S. Geological Survey scientists based in Vancouver.

“It was a great opportunity for us to collaborate,” said Liz Westby, a geologist at the Cascades Volcano Observatory in east Vancouver. “OMSI is bringing the history alive, and we are bringing it forward in time.

“As we know, volcanoes are going to erupt. That is their job. Our job is to detect the earliest signs and symptoms,” Westby said.

The Pompeii exhibition is designed to give visitors a glimpse of life in the Italian city just before it was buried by 20 feet or so of ash.

Video, audio, photographic murals and frescoes and mosaics reflect different locations in Pompeii, including a market, a temple, theater and baths.

The gallery features more than 200 items on loan from the Naples National Archaeological Museum, which was founded in 1777, about 30 years after excavators realized that they’d found Pompeii.

From deity to dinner

Artifact categories range from divine (including a bronze statue of Apollo from A.D. 50) to dinnertime. A glassware exhibit includes a tumbler and two bowls a lot like family keepsakes someone might have inherited from a great-grandmother.

Seventeen silver coins were found next to the remains of a man attempting to flee; maybe going for his savings cost the man his life.

“It’s amazing how quickly the city was gone, and how well it was preserved,” Don Kneller, a Vancouver resident, said during a recent visit.

The culmination of the Pompeii journey is a room with body casts of six people and a guard dog.

While that illustrates the end of Pompeii, it is not the end of OMSI’s presentation on volcanoes. As visitors exit and consider the destruction of Pompeii, Westby said, “they might wonder, ‘Could it happen here?’ ”

“Volcanoes are a part of our life here in the Pacific Northwest,” Nancy Stueber, OMSI’s president and CEO, noted in a news release.

A hallway display labeled OMSI’s Volcanology Field Office looks at Mount St. Helens, Mount Hood, Mount Rainier and Mount Adams.

“We have active volcanoes here and we are actively monitoring them,” Westby said.

Some of that monitoring technology is on display in the form of a “spider” — an instrumentation package that can be dropped by helicopter onto a volcano.

“You can jump up and down, and see what it looks like” on a quake-measuring seismometer, Westby said.

Mount St. Helens has already proved its destructive power, killing 57 people when it erupted on May 18, 1980.


Which brings us back to the question: Could Vancouver some day be engulfed by a Vesuvius-style, city-killing cataclysm?

No, said U.S. Geological Survey hydrologist Carolyn Driedger.

“The geography is wrong for a Pompeii-style disaster to happen here in Vancouver,” said Driedger, public information officer and outreach coordinator at the Cascades Volcano Observatory.

“In the Cascades, human communities are too far removed from the volcanoes to be at direct risk from pyroclastic flows,” Driedger said in an email. “Some popular tourist attractions are at risk, such as visitor facilities at Mount St. Helens and Timberline Lodge on Mount Hood.

“Consider these distances: From Vesuvius to Pompeii is 5 miles; from Mount St. Helens to Johnson Ridge Observatory is 5 miles; from Mount Hood to Highway 26 is 4 miles.

The primary ways in which pyroclastic flows could affect us is by melting snow and ice, producing lahars that travel dozens of miles downstream where there are communities today.

“Ash could seriously affect infrastructure, but because of the distances of local communities from Mount St. Helens, the ash will not be hot, as it was at Pompeii,” Driedger said.

“Still, ash could disrupt our lives by harming electrical power plants and lines, clogging sewers and sewage treatment plants, contaminating water supplies and hampering communication and transportation systems.”

‘Pompeii: The Exhibition’ Q&A

When did Mount Vesuvius erupt?

Mount Vesuvius erupted shortly before noon Aug. 24, A.D. 79; by 8 p.m., falling ash and pumice buried Pompeii and neighboring Herculaneum and Stabiae. Eruptions continued into the next morning, when the largest pyroclastic flows of hot ashes, volcanic gases and debris destroyed Pompeii. In just two minutes, its streets were covered in almost 8 feet of hot ash.

How many people died during the eruption?

About three-quarters of Pompeii’s 165 acres have been excavated, and some 1,150 bodies have been discovered out of about 2,000 thought to have died in the city when it was destroyed. This means that the vast majority of the city’s 20,000 residents fled at the first signs of the volcanic activity.

Are there historical accounts of the eruption?

Yes. Pliny the Younger witnessed the devastation of Pompeii while staying with his uncle, who was killed in the eruption.

How was the city preserved?

The large amount of ash that covered the city acted as a preservative. During a pyroclastic flow, enormous volumes of extremely hot gases, ash, and rocks rush down the side of a volcano, like an avalanche. That mixture covered the city and froze it in time. Pompeii was thought to be lost forever.

When were the lost cities rediscovered?

About 1710, a farmer digging a well struck Herculaneum’s ancient theater. Much plundering and treasure-hunting ensued, and Pompeii was rediscovered in the 1740s.

Is Mount Vesuvius still active?

Yes. Mount Vesuvius is the only active volcano in mainland Europe, and it has produced some of the continent’s largest volcanic eruptions. Located on Italy’s west coast, it overlooks the city of Naples.

When was its last eruption?

Mount Vesuvius erupted in March 1944, shortly after Allied forces arrived in Naples. More than 80 American B-25 bombers of the 340th Bomb Group were damaged. (A member of the 340th was Lt. Joseph Heller, author of “Catch-22.”)

Is the exhibition family-friendly?

It may not be suitable for some children. It includes body casts of people who died in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, as well as a small separate section that discusses erotic art in ancient Pompeii.

How were the body casts created?

Ash hardened around the victims’ bodies. The bodies eventually decayed, leaving skeletons in body-shaped voids. Starting in the 1860s, archaeologists poured plaster into the hollows, creating casts that represent the victims in their final moments of life.