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Bringing home ancient Rome

By Shauntel Lowe

Joseph Smith was breathless with excitement as he described what the last eight months have been like since one “lucky phone call” carried an invitation for the college professor to be a guest curator for a new exhibition at the San Diego Natural History Museum. He tried to downplay his involvement in the project, “A Day in Pompeii,” but his gushing over its beauty revealed this La Jollan was no bystander in its creation.

San Diego is the traveling exhibition’s fifth host city. It offers a collection of more than 250 artifacts from the ancient city of Pompeii, Italy, destroyed in 79 A.D. after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Beneath the lava lay a city filled with traditions and broken lives -- now pieced together at the museum through a collection of household items, art and body casts of the city’s victims.

Smith, 47, who by day is chair of the classics and humanities department at San Diego State University and by night is a husband and father of two, gave the La Jolla Light his insights into what it has been like being involved with bringing ancient Pompeii to San Diego.

Smith discussed his passion for theater, the “mysterious creature” he loves in the exhibition and why ancient Roman culture is still relevant today (beyond his family’s love of Mediterranean cuisine).

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Q: What were your day-to-day responsibilities as curator?

A: Fact-check and proofread. (I was the) resident expert who sits back and waits. I could work and make suggestions. You have to word (the descriptions) so you don’t mis-describe things. Every aspect of the Roman world studied gives you Pompeii as basic references. Pompeii gives you the wonderful opportunity to study major social issues.

Q: Why do you teach about classic performance and Roman culture now?

A: I want (my students) to see that a text on paper is only that. It’s only a thing that doesn’t really come to life until someone picks it up and interprets it. So much of performance is interpretation and … if you’re really doing a good job of learning to be a reader, you’re learning the art of interpretation through performance.

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Q: Did you learn anything new about Pompeii?

A: The telling of the disaster story, how and why all the people perished, learning exactly what the events were in the last two days of Pompeii life. (The displays) have to do with very common objects. That’s probably what I love the most about it. We’re not going for a picture of what the rich were like. This is a set of objects that really tell you what any given day in Pompeii might have been like.

Q: What role did theater play in Pompeii?

A: When you go into any house in Pompeii, homeowners wanted to put paintings on their walls that had to do with theater. It was a big source of entertainment. (They) loved going to see shows. They had a theater district with two theaters right there in town. They had the amphitheater where gladiator shows were put on. When you see them wanting to have art surrounding them, it points to theater, excitement of the spectacular.

Q: What parallels to the love of theater in Pompeii do you see in contemporary society?

A: They were connoisseurs of theater. (Today we have) mass media like movies and radio and TV. You walk into anyone’s house, chances are you will see a TV. If you can see the extent to which people love to have magazines that have to do with movies or TV shows, residents of Pompeii were the same way: who the famous gladiators of the day were, who best actors of the day were.

Q: Do you have a favorite piece in the exhibition?

A: She’s just called “Winged Divinity.” She’s just this mysterious person cut off a larger wall fresco, just this beautiful lady who sits with a temple of architecture behind her. There’s just something about the way the colors come together in that fresco. It’s such a great demonstration of this Roman taste for color in their living rooms; it’s my favorite combination of colors in any one fresco.

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Q: What principles of Roman/Pompeian life do you see in La Jolla and society?

A: (Pompeii) was a town right on the bay of Naples on the sea. Romans used that whole bay of Naples for their summer resort, thought of it as the jewel of Italy. A lot of times the place here reminds me of the Mediterranean.

If you see how complex their daily life was, how rushed and hurried it could be, those are signs of the hustle and bustle of life in Pompeii. There was a great variety of good things they could have in their diet, a blending of all different kinds of cultures throughout the Roman Empire. You see the melting pot in Pompeii.

What you realize when you see (the exhibition) is a picture of society that isn’t complete until you take into account differences in the daily life of men, women and social classes. It’s a pretty good cross section of all kinds of life.

Q: How is your life a reflection of life in Pompeii?

A: I love the Mediterranean diet. We try to have as much olive oil as we can in our nightly diet, keep to the simple grains. Their diet was a great combination, different kinds of beans and grains that they could either boil or ground up and make into different kinds of cereals. Their cooking really does appeal to me. Their desserts were very simple, fruits and honey. I always think about simplifying our family diet with this model of the Roman diet.

Q: How has your time as a curator impacted the way you teach at SDSU?

A: There’s been an immediate impact. Students in my classes right now focus on Pompeii. It’s an extension of what I already do. I’m keen to finding ways to get people hooked, get people taking Latin and Greek, getting them convinced it’s worth their time.

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Classics are a dying (field of study). People should spend time learning Latin and Greek. It’s an extraordinary thing to ask students. It’s basically teaching people how to read and parse sentences and grammar, very old-fashioned arts. The gain is if you if you understand what real reading is, the art of interpreting and how to get words to come to life off the page.

Q: What can people learn from studying Roman culture, other than language?

A: The more you study it, the more you see real differences between past and present. Anyone can look and see the connections, see how similar they are. Different conceptions of life and the way they categorized the world -- once you can see that, it makes you more aware of your own life now and the assumptions you make, the way you classify people.

Q: Do you teach your family about Roman culture?

A: I try not to bore them with that. The house is just filled with books. Anywhere they go it’s impossible to avoid. I try not to do it actively. I’ll have a much better chance of getting them interested if I don’t force it on them.

Q: What role will you have now that the exhibition is open?

A: I give talks, give an hour-long lecture about objects in the show; other days I show up and walk through. In August, I’m leading a tour over to Pompeii. This tour is a 10-day cruise on the Mediterranean. My job on that trip will be expert classicist.

Q: What would be your ideal response from visitors to the exhibition?

A: Once they’re done with the show, I want them go right out and want to start reading about Rome and Pompeii and get interested in going to Italy. I sort of want it to reawaken a thing that was going on a generation ago. People had picture books of Romans in their houses.

“A Day in Pompeii” runs from February through June 15.