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Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2011

'The Search for the Last Queen of Egypt' Comes to Milwaukee

Public Museum hosts National Geographic Society's 'Cleopatra' exhibition

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The names of ancient monarchs are mostly dead letters in old books. They are powerless and forgotten. One exception is Alexander the Great, the young Greek firebrand who conquered Egypt, Persia and the Near East. Another is a woman who descended from one of his generals, Cleopatra. Alexander remains great, but somehow Cleopatra's legend has only grown larger over time.

On Oct. 14, the Milwaukee Public Museum opens "Cleopatra: The Search for the Last Queen of Egypt," an exhibition featuring nearly 150 artifacts, many of which were recently discovered. Milwaukee is one of only four cities in the United States chosen to host the National Geographic Society exhibit, and winning the contract was a victory for our city. According to Ellen Censky, the museum's senior vice president and academic dean, Milwaukee beat Chicago for the privilege of receiving "Cleopatra."

"We are in a much stronger position," she said, referring to such recent blockbuster exhibits at the Milwaukee Public Museum as "Mummies of the World," "Titanic" and "Dead Sea Scrolls and the Bible." "Milwaukee is not considered a first-tier market like Chicago, but we proved we can bring in a bigger share of Milwaukee's population than the Field Museum could do with the population of Chicago."

The "Cleopatra" exhibition was delivered to Milwaukee last month in three big trucks, but the setup was more complicated than clearing the loading dock and unpacking the crates. Two colossal statues depicting a king and queen, each weighing more than 5 tons and towering nearly 17 feet over onlookers, are the centerpieces of the exhibit. Before the contract was signed, the museum conducted engineering studies to determine where to place those looming images of Cleopatra's ancestors.

"They were discovered underwater in the bay of Alexandria," Censky said. Like many of the exhibit's artifacts, they were uncovered in the 1990s by French underwater explorer Franck Goddio. While searching for a shipwreck, he found a lost city from Cleopatra's time.

Once the pieces of the statues were brought to land, they were bolted together by a steel spine. The Swiss engineer responsible for assembling the stonework flew to Milwaukee to supervise the uncoupling and reassembling of the pieces after they were hoisted into the second-floor exhibition hall. Holes were drilled into the museum's floor to accommodate the gantry chains, and a fragile display of Chinese pottery had to be packed away for fear of damage from the drilling. "It's a complicated load-in," Censky said with calm understatement.

Walking With Cleopatra

Visitors entering the exhibit will view a short documentary on Cleopatra. Afterward, the screen will rise to reveal the massive statues. Once past the statues, museumgoers will cross a glass platform with objects underneath, simulating the sea and the ocean floor where Goddio discovered the cups and coins, jewelry and jugs of everyday life in Cleopatra's time. The exhibit also draws from the excavations of Zahi Hawass, Egypt's former minister of antiquities, whose search for the tomb of Cleopatra and her Roman lover, Mark Antony, didn't turn up the bodies but did unearth relics that reference the last queen of ancient Egypt. In an entertaining twist, the audio tour walking visitors through the queen's world is in the voice of Cleopatra.

The final component of the exhibit looks at Cleopatra's afterlife through her depiction in art, literature and film. Her enemy, the Roman leader Octavian (better known by the name he later adopted, Caesar Augustus), ordered all images of the queen effaced and set out to blacken her reputation. As a result, we don't have a clear picture of Cleopatra's face. But the campaign to diminish her only backfired. She would appear more heroic (and interesting) to future generations than Caesar himself. Cleopatra was well educated and spoke many languages; she was ruthless and power hungry, as were her opponents in a struggle whose result was the rise of the Roman Empire and the fall of Egypt. Through Octavian's efforts to demean her grew the intriguing legend of Cleopatra the seductress, Antony as her lovesick victim and their decision to commit suicide in the face of defeat in 30 BCE. When William Shakespeare adapted her story from the account of Roman authors of her time, the immortality of her name was assured.

"She became queen at 17. She killed her brother. She built up her kingdom. She became the most powerful woman of the world at her time and formed alliances with very powerful men," Censky said, ticking off several reasons for the endurance of Cleopatra's story. After more than 2,000 years, her name is not forgotten and her legend hasn't lost its power over the imagination.

"Cleopatra: The Search for the Last Queen of Egypt" runs Oct. 14-April 29 at the Milwaukee Public Museum. To purchase tickets, call (414) 223-4676 or visit www.mpm.edu.

David Luhrssen taught history at MATC and is the
Shepherd Express' A&E editor.