How Claudia met Mary Beard : The Untold Story / by Anthony Gibbins

Professor Mary Beard first wrote about Lego Pompeii in A Don’s Life (The Times Literary Supplement) on January 23rd, 2015. ‘If you're looking for a reason to visit Australia in 2015,’ the piece begins, ’let me suggest a visit to the new Lego Pompeii in the Nicholson Museum.’ The article contains a wealth of information, about what and – more importantly – who appears in the model. Mary gives a shout out to Estelle Lazer, Andrew Wallace-Hadrill and Johann Joachim Winckelmann, among others. She concludes, ‘Oh and just round the corner, there's me on my bike. I'm jolly proud to be there. Thanks to you all at the Nicholson!’ It is a fun article, and got a huge – and, I should say, mixed – response.

When I decided to ask the Nicholson if I might shoot an episode of Legonium on the Pompeii model, the first thing I did was write to Professor Mary Beard. It was, for me, a really big deal. Would she, I asked, allow me to include her (in mini-figure form) in a story set in an imaginary world, told in Latin and illustrated with Lego photography. I wasn’t holding my breath. To my surprise, a response arrived the very next day. Delighted, she said. But I would have to be quick. The Nicholson’s Curator, Michael Turner, had promised that she could have the figure when they were done with it.

Michael Turner, as I understand it, was the brains behind Lego Pompeii (and Lego Acropolis and Lego Colosseum). He saw it, as Professor Beard points out in her article, as a way of engaging with young people and drawing them towards the Classics. I have met Michael on a few occasions. He is lively, generous, enthusiastic and inspiring. When I arrived to photograph the Pompeii model he had just left the Nicholson – he was Senior Curator from 2005 to 2016 – for other pursuits. And, I was told, he had taken Mary Beard (minifigure form) with him! He was traveling to the UK and had taken Lego Mary as a gift for the real Mary Beard. Great for Mary, but a setback for me. Dr Craig Barker, The Nicholson’s Manager of Education and Public Programs, came to the rescue. He contacted Ryan McNaught, the model’s creator, and asked if he could assemble a second Mary Beard. A few weeks later it arrived.

Professor Mary Beard is a legend. She is an outstanding historian and has done more than anyone else I can think of to make the ancient world accessible without removing any of its complexity or mystery. Reading her work, one is left with a much greater understanding of not only what we know, but also where those limits of knowledge are reached. And a feeling that understanding what we don’t know is at least as interesting as knowing what we do. Moreover, forced recently to confront the ugly that is the internet troll movement, she has done it with a strength, dignity and confidence that they simply cannot reckon with. Claudia is not a real person. All I know of her is that she is a thoughtful young woman with a deep interest in ancient History. But that alone leads me to think that it would be a great thrill for her to meet Professor Mary Beard.

Then - miraculous to say! - Professor Mary Beard, a most expert person, arrived there by bike. I approached most bashfully and greeted her.

The Lego model of Pompeii is housed in the Nicholson Museum of The University of Sydney, Australia. Entry to the museum is entirely free, and you may visit Monday to Friday between 10:00 and 4:30. The Nicholson is Australia’s oldest University museum and contains the largest collection of antiquities in the Southern Hemisphere. 

The Pompeii model was commissioned by the Nicholson and constructed by LEGO Professional Builder Ryan McNaught. It is the third such model the museum has exhibited, following the Colosseum and Acropolis.  The Colosseum was returned to McNaught and recently exhibited around Australia. The Acropolis was denoted by the Nicholson to the Acropolis Museum in Athens. The Pompeii model is estimated to include 190 000 bricks and took 420 hours to complete.