institution: Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, University of Michigan
category: Exhibition and Collection Extension
“Leisure and Luxury in the Age of Nero: The Villas of Oplontis near Pompeii” is the online version of an international traveling exhibition that was organized and presented by the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology in Spring 2016. This spectacular show explored the lavish lifestyle and economic interests of ancient Rome’s wealthiest and most powerful citizens, who vacationed on the Bay of Naples in the 1st century AD. On display were more than 200 objects brought from Italy, including magnificent marble statues, colorful fragments of wall paintings, precious jewelry, and various objects of everyday life. The exhibition was mounted in cooperation with the Archaeological Superintendency of Pompeii and the Oplontis Project at the University of Texas; following its premiere at the Kelsey Museum, it traveled to two additional venues in the United States. The online exhibition was produced in house, using resources and didactic material originally developed for the physical show and its accompanying printed catalogue (see Acknowledgments for a full list of contributing institutions and individuals).
“Leisure and Luxury in the Age of Nero” focuses on two structures at Oplontis near Pompeii that were buried when Mount Vesuvius erupted in AD 79. The exhibition evoked spaces in an elite Roman residence (Villa A) and a neighboring commercial complex (Oplontis B), to allow contemporary visitors to visualize the daily lives of both the upper and lower classes of Roman society. This project is a result of many years of international and inter-institutional research collaboration, and one of the main challenges was to interpret its rich scholarly content for the general public; to achieve this goal, information presented on the website has been structured in several layers.
Website users are advised to start their visit by following a linear itinerary through reconstructed ancient spaces, such as residential apartments, gardens, luxurious living rooms, and service courtyards; here, groups of objects are displayed in the context of their possible usage. Along with its main content, each tour station has a few expandable boxes that provide opportunities for more in-depth exploration, including higher-resolution images, detailed object descriptions, and 3D reconstructions. The tour narrative tells website visitors about the lifestyles of both the wealthy villa owners and their house slaves, just before the catastrophic eruption of Mount Vesuvius. The emotional climax of the tour is the story of the 54 skeletons of men and women found in one of the vaulted storerooms of Oplontis B where they had sought shelter from the volcanic eruption.
The online exhibition includes a selection of 3D movies that allow visitors to virtually walk through reconstructed rooms of the elite Villa A. This is an exciting resource that puts fragments of wall paintings and other architectural details in context.
An alternative way to visit the “Leisure and Luxury in the Age of Nero” website is via the object pages where individual objects are grouped by their function and material. Each object is linked to the respective tour station where it has been displayed; object images are accompanied by “tombstone” labels that may be valuable for scholars and students.