Wednesday, February 16, 2011


A fascination with Cleopatra can be traced throughout a history of painting as well as our own American cultural history. Picking up from where the ancient Romans left off, American cinema and television has recorded versions of the story of the seductress who lured both Julius Cesar and Mark Antony in an attempt to control Rome and Egypt. Ironically, myths like these are attracting large audiences to more recent research (Stacy Schiff's Cleopatra: A Life is currently #5 in the NY Times Bestsellers) about Egypt's most famous queen. While intrigued by her portrayal, many really do want to know the truth about her life. This search for truth through underwater archaeology, and not theatrics, is what's most impressive about Cleopatra: The Search for the Last Queen of Egypt opening this week at The Museum Center.

The exhibition features the artifacts, statues, jewelry, coins, and daily items uncovered by a team of underwater archaeologists led by Franck Goddio, as well as an excavation on land led by Dr. Zahi Hawass. Goddio began this search along the Mediterranean coast of Egypt in 1992. The exhibition includes underwater footage of his team retrieving artifacts not seen in centuries.

The find is incredibly breathtaking. Recognizing these objects in the context of Cleopatra's rule is certainly interesting. The uncovering of two ancient cities, Canopus and Heracleion, which had been lost beneath the sea nearly 2,000 years ago reveals more to us about the life of ancient Egypt. And it is this last point about Egyptian culture, more than Cleopatra, this viewer found most valuable.

It is the seeing of these objects not so much as part Cleopatra's story, but in the context of what is happening in Egypt today that is most interesting. The excitement of unveiling and seeing these objects from history matched that which I shared with Egyptians today. At the same time, a realization that the Egyptian Museum is now facing the loss of artifacts, made the opportunity to see these objects, much more powerful to me.

Walking through the dark galleries at the Museum Center, I felt as though I was the one on the search for Egyptian artifacts. Perhaps this was the intent of the designers. The dark galleries are the setting for this exhibition permitting lighting effects as well as easy viewing of what seemed to be a total of about 10 flat screens mounted throughout the exhibition. In the dark, the artifacts themselves glow, making them easy to spot, but not always so easy to see. Detailed engravings, and stylistic elements on many of the sculptures are sometimes difficult to make out in the shadows that dance throughout the exhibition.

Despite the dark galleries the greatest impact of the show is undoubtedly the pair of colossal 16-foot granite statues of a Ptolemaic king and queen from the 4th-3rd centuries B.C.E. The video of unloading these was shown weeks ago as a teaser, but like all art, you must see these pieces in person. Goddio told me these stood at the entrance of a temple Cleopatra and each ruler before her would have entered to pay tribute to the gods.

Goddio was in the gallery answering many of the media questions about each of the artifacts. He was so incredibly animated. Certainly proud of his work, but seemed more excited about each of the artifacts as he tried to impress upon us the importance of each piece to Egyptian culture and history. When I asked him what it was like to see the colossal sculptures in particular in the museum, I hoped to pull from him at least some of the awe I felt seeing them for the first time. Pointing to the space behind the heel of the foot of the king, Goddio said this was the first thing he spotted. Because of the granite under water, he couldn't tell what it was until he found the king's toes. With eyes so big, he shared the moment he uncovered and realized the scale of these pieces.

It is this moment, facing Egyptian history that is the pinnacle of this exhibition. We do this the same way Goddio does it, by engaging the artifacts.

I understand the attraction to blockbuster exhibitions. I really do get the need to attract not only typical museum patrons but the hope to tap into a wider audience. Technology, music, lighting, and special effects work to attract newer and bigger audiences to museums. National Geographic and Arts and Exhibitions International certainly know how to use these tool to this end and the Museum Center has benefited well with past exhibitions like Real Pirates, Titanic: The Artifact Exhibit, and America I Am.

Like these exhibitions, Cleopatra has a built in intrigue. The flat screens may draw people into the exhibition, but in another level of irony, the theatrics keep us further away from the stories the artifacts try to tell...further away from Cleopatra. These tools to engage instead keep Cleopatra on "the big screen." In fact, the exhibit ends with examples of paintings depicting Cleopatra throughout history and finally, a series of film clips of Elizabeth Taylor, Vivian Leigh, Claudette Colbert, and more recently Lindsey Marshal.

Though as a whole, Cleopatra: The Search for the Last Queen of Egypt does provide a wonderful opportunity to learn more about her, Egypt, and the continuing excavations. The Museum Center is hosting a number of programs for children and adults, including a discussion with Franck Goddio about his work. This talk is tomorrow, Friday, February 18 at 7:30 pm and is free and open to the public.

The exhibition continues through September 5, 2011. While there seems to be plenty of time to see it, the tickets are timed and dated. You will want to order your tickets in advance.

For information on the exhibition and the accompanying programing, please contact The Museum Center.