Pompeii: The Exhibition at the California Science Center
If seeing the ancient city of Pompeii is on your wish list, the California Science Center is about to save you a pile of money on airfare. The museum has brought history's most famous volcanic victim to downtown LA, in the form of Pompeii: The Exhibition - an immersive exhibit that transports visitors back to 79AD for a before, during, and after experience of the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. Our Mommy Poppins editorial team got to pay Pompeii a visit on opening day, and we're giving away tickets periodically this summer so that several of our readers can do the same! But will your kids like it, and are they ready for a (way cool) simulated volcanic eruption?
Many disasters have befallen the world, but few have brought posterity so much joy. I'd like to take credit for that observation, but it was actually the German poet Goethe, when he toured Pompeii in the 18th century - just after the ruin was discovered. As exciting as it must have been then to tour the newly unearthed city, the Science Center's exhibition offers even more layers of fascination - both for fans of history and of natural disasters.
I was fortunate enough to visit Pompeii many years ago, in my backpacking-around-Europe youth, and the city definitely went in my "nice place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there" column. The first thing that struck me about Pompeii: The Exhibition, however, was how very inviting and livable the resort town seemed to be before the inevitable happened. The virtual homes we toured were reminiscent of Bel Air or Malibu, and by the time I had seen a few rooms of their pleasant, luxurious lifestyle, I was practically wishing I lived there. Seeing just the ruins years ago, I had no tangible sense of what had been there before; this exhibit gives a much fuller picture - making the disaster so much more shocking.
Speaking of shocking, the "before" section has one final room before the eruption chamber that families with young children may want to skip: Just after the display on gladiator entertainment (the Justin Biebers of their day, apparently), visitors are offered a choice of paths; to the right is the "Pompeiian Brothel Room" - prefaced by a sign recommending parental guidance - and to the left, the wall displays the words "Erotica Bypass." The small erotica room, truth be told, is not so shocking for its content as for its concepts; if your children have not yet been exposed to the idea of prostitution, and if today is not the day you want to explain it, then take the Erotica Bypass. The Brothel Room includes a few paintings and sculptures portraying the sex act, but more poignant is the video about the lives of the girls who lived in the brothels - probably more than kids younger than teenager need to know.
Whichever path you choose to the eruption room, the virtual destruction of the town is definitely one of the major highlights of the exhibition. The experience lasts about three to four minutes, taking visitors through a sped up version of how the fateful day unfolded - complete with ground rumbling below and smoke rolling in. Fascinating to most of us, the experience is certainly not for the very young; I wouldn't try bringing any child younger than seven or so. The simulation could also be a bit much for anyone who's recently been through an earthquake or other disaster, or who is sensitive to artificial smoke. All these disclaimers aside, the virtual volcanic experience is a real eye-opener and worth the price of admission alone, for the lasting impression it offers.
After the simulation, the exhibit continues with cast figures of some of the victims of the disaster - no doubt some of the most famous images of Pompeii. One gets the full picture of how people were caught and how they perished. Seeing 2,000-year-old people in their last moments of life is an amazing thing; kids old enough to handle the concept will probably hold onto these images for years to come. Again, though, children younger than seven or eight are likely find the display upsetting.
The final room of the exhibit is the most child-friendly. It offers information about volcanoes in general, including an interactive, iPad-driven display that allows the visitor to create his or her own volcanic eruption on a large screen, based on various criteria. There is also a display that shows how scientists explore and restore excavations, inviting kids to knock along a frescoed wall, looking for hollow spaces behind. Finally, there is a hands-on display inviting kids to build their own archways, to learn what makes them stable.
While this is the extent of the actual exhibition, the museum suggests accompanying this tour with a screening of the IMAX film Forces of Nature. We saw the film, and it is an impressive experience - but one that I think skews even older than the Pompeii exhibit. The film covers three kinds of natural disaster - volcanoes, earthquakes, and tornadoes - and it is sobering, particularly for those of us living in an earthquake zone. The youngest kids we saw in the room were middle schoolers, and I've never seen a group of middle school aged kids so silent; they were flat-out dumbstruck. The film gives some amazing insights into the disasters and the ways that scientists are studying them, but I wouldn't bring my fourth-grader and expect him to sleep that night.
With or without the suggested IMAX film, this exhibit offers a rare opportunity to take kids behind the scenes on one of history's most fascinating episodes. If your kids are old enough to handle the idea that a town was buried 2,000 years ago, people and all, then Pompeii: The Exhibition will bring history to life for them in a way that will stay with them for years to come.
Pompeii: The Exhibition is at the California Science Center through January 11, 2015.
Adults $19.75; Children (4-12) $12.75, (13-17) $16.75
School groups $9.75, with 1 free ticket for every 15 purchased
Enter promo code BRONZE when purchasing tickets online to save $3 on adult exhibit-only tickets and $2 on adult IMAX tickets.