The Pompeii experience: in the loop

This weekend my wife and I went to see a public talk at the British Museum with Mary Beard, the famous Professor of Classics at Cambridge University and TV personality, and Robert Harris, author of the best-selling novel ‘Pompeii’, published in 2003. STAGETEXT provided live speech to text captioning of the evening’s event. This was the first time I had ever been to a public talk with live captioning, so I was curious to find out what it would be like. I was also seeing the exhibition called ‘Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum’ at the British Museum the following day and I wanted to find out what they had to say about the exhibition itself before I went.

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My first impressions of the talk were that the live captioning worked really well and I could follow it easily. I was surprised that the hearing loops in the auditorium worked incredibly well when I switched my hearing aid to the T position. I was amazed that when I closed my eyes, I could hear the conversation between Mary and Robert very clearly, even with my eyes shut. Suddenly, I didn’t have to struggle to try and lip-read them from afar or have to rely on reading the live captioning as much. This was a revelation to me. I think I am so used to hearing loops in public buildings either not being switched on, not working properly or staff who work at these places not knowing how to use them. At first I used to become frustrated at this, but now it has become the norm for me.

It reminds me of my previous weekend at Hearing Link’s ‘Ear to the Ground’ event for deafened and hard of hearing people in Surrey. Rhiannon Barker from Hearing Link talked about this same widespread problem of hearing loops often not working in public buildings across the country and with staff often not being trained properly to use them. She urged the audience to campaign for change by complaining about it to their local supermarket or bank branch managers, and consider boycotting them if they don’t take any action to provide better hearing loops which work. I didn’t really realize how important it is to have hearing loops which work really well until I had experienced this really good one, which made me appreciate the difference and enhanced my whole hearing experience.

The discussion between Mary and Robert provided some amazing and at times very humorous insights into our continued fascination with Pompeii. They discussed how the exhibition is still very relevant to us all today because it puts human beings at the centre of the story. It focuses on the ordinary everyday lives of the estimated 12-15,000 people who lived in Pompeii before Mount Vesuvius erupted in AD 79 and destroyed an entire city with all its inhabitants in just twenty-four hours. Mary Beard commented that the rhythm of life is still the same today as it was then, and that is why the story has universal appeal. They talked at length about how such a simple everyday utility such as water became a powerful tool for the political elite Romans to control their people. Robert Harris described how pumping the water supply to its people via aqueducts was invented by the Romans, and that the powerful elite Romans used it as an extravagant commodity to display their wealth and power via elaborate gardens with beautiful fountains and water features.

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The exhibition itself is full of everyday objects related to the life of the people of Pompeii in their homes, gardens, businesses, shops and streets. It is a fascinating insight into how people of all social classes lived cheek by jowl with one another in this city and shared their lives. The many excavated objects and images have been frozen in time by the disaster. Of all the objects exhibited, perhaps one of the most poignant and haunting for me is a carbonized baby’s crib, which still rocks on its rockers 2,000 years after it was last used. There are also many beautiful artefacts such as intricate mosaic tiles of animals and fish and beautiful jewellery and pictures, which have all remained perfectly intact over the centuries.

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My personal highlight was being able to hear Mary Beard and Robert Harris’s voices clearly as they discussed what life was like in Pompeii before the disaster struck 2,000 years ago in a way which I didn’t believe was now accessible to me as a hard of hearing person. This was a result of the excellent hearing loop technology, in combination with the live speech-to-text captioning. It gave me some fascinating insights into the human focus of the exhibition, which I appreciated fully when I saw it myself.

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