Last weekend my wife and I had the pleasure of visiting the traveling Pompeii exhibition at the Arizona Science Center in Phoenix.
The display is set up in a way that visitors become time travelers, winding their way through artifacts and displays showing what life in Pompeii was like in 79 AD before and after the catastrophic eruption of Mount Vesuvius. The eruption buried the city and its residents in ash, preserving a catastrophic moment in time.
As I walked through the exhibit I was curious how the display would handle the wealth of erotica and pornographic frescoes I knew were part of the discoveries in archaeological excavations of the ancient Roman city known for its vacationing pleasure seekers.
Halfway through the self-guided tour, I was greeted by a sign at a hallway junction that informed me that if I continued to the right I would pass through a display of erotica and information on the city’s numerous brothels that was for mature viewers. If I wanted to bypass that portion of the exhibit, I was advised to continue to the left.
Needless to say, like a Pinal GOP primary, the right was crowded.
As a journalist, I too had to take in the entire exhibit. Hey, how could I write this column otherwise? When I informed my wife of my professional responsibility, she just rolled her eyes.
Many of the erotic images discovered in Pompeii were in bath houses, with individual pornographic images above the lockers where bath patrons left their clothes. One archaeologist I read about theorized that the images were like locker numbers, so the users could remember where they left their things.
This makes sense, because who can remember a Roman numeral? Quick, what number Super Bowl is coming up?
Back in 1997, the Brigham Young University Museum of Art, located in Provo, opened a touring exhibition titled “The Hands of Rodin” that featured 54 sculptures by the acclaimed Auguste Rodin.
However, when the exhibition opened at the museum, four sculptures were left in their crates because administrators at the LDS church university considered them unacceptable to display. The excluded sculptures included The Kiss, one of Rodin‘s best-known works.
The decision not to show these works caused a number of BYU students and members of the community to protest what they perceived as censorship. The university‘s decision was criticized in the media, including Utah newspapers. The museum director insisted that censorship had not occurred because The Kiss didn’t fit the exhibition‘s attempt to highlight hands in Rodin‘s work.
Nobody bought the argument.
At the time I was an editor at the Standard-Examiner in Ogden, Utah, and we decided we couldn’t cover the controversy without showing our readers what all the fuss was about.
So we published a photo of The Kiss.
Many of our Mormon readers objected to our decision because they felt we weren’t adhering to community standards and were setting our own. Others felt we were only running the photo to snub The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, thus insulting religious beliefs.
After the flood of negative publicity, the church decided to display The Kiss and the other sculptures in an enclosed area, accessible only to adults.
My opinion at the time was that if you didn’t want to show the entire exhibit, then don’t show any of it.
A comparison between these two exhibits 20 years apart shows how community standards have evolved from a governing body deciding what is appropriate, to individual choice. It is now common in art museums and media programming to only issue warnings and allow viewers to make their own decision as to what is acceptable.
Warnings, rather than censorship, are now the community standard. You even see them on History channel programs about World War II. It’s all about empowering the individual to make the decision deemed best rather than being told what is best.
But as they said in Pompeii, caveat emptor (let the buyer beware).
Andy Howell is assistant managing editor. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.