critical reviews of history exhibit practice in an age of ubiquitous display
Wednesday, August 25, 2010
“Cleopatra, the Search for the Last Queen of Egypt,” which premiered at Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute in June, is probably the most widely hyped exhibition I’ve seen in a long time. Philly has adopted the exhibit as its own, promoting it on the Amtrak line to DC, and on every Philadelphia tourism website I’ve seen, even so far as to create a “Cleopatra VIP Hotel Package” available at 11 area hotels.
The Franklin Institute, known for its kid-friendly focus on scientific process and the history of innovation, seemed like an unlikely site to jump on the Egyptology bandwagon, but I was certainly intrigued and excited by the prospect of an immersive day of learning and entertainment, from a “Mummies” IMAX movie to lunch at “Cleo’s Portico,” to, of course, the exhibit itself. But could it possibly live up to all the hype?
Cleo is splashy, no question, but there’s genuine science, history and museological practice behind all the glamour. The 4-minute introductory video for the exhibition is reminiscent of a promo ad for a new HBO miniseries, but it clearly lays out the exhibition’s central question: who was Cleopatra, really, and how can we learn more?
Cleverly divided into sections based on key places in Cleopatra VII’s life and associated archeological expeditions by Dr. Zahi Hawass (searching for Cleo and Marc Antony’s Tomb) and Franck Goddio (the underwater archeologist excavating ancient Alexandria and its surrounding environs), the exhibit uses theatrical lighting and a first-person narrated audio tour detailing Cleo’s life in the best tradition of historical fiction. The exhibit is anchored by some truly amazing artifacts, including a piece of papyrus, signed by the queen herself with the emphatic phrase “make it happen.”
At the same time, the exhibit plays a lot with visitors’ notions of authenticity. Yes, identified artifacts are from the right time and place to be associated with Cleopatra, but were they truly encountered by her? For example, a stone statue of a Ptolomaic queen is identified as an artifact that could have represented Cleopatra. Cleopatra’s enigmatic nature seems to hold the whole exhibit together, maintaining the attraction of the mysterious unknown. Since all images of Cleo were ordered to be destroyed by Octavius and his Roman cohorts, Egyptologists are quick to claim that no one knows exactly what she looked like. Herself a Greek in the line of Ptolemy, who adopted Egyptian culture and espoused a hybrid religion, Cleopatra knew a thing or two about image control. She portrayed herself in the style of Isis in a statue or on a coin as a generic Roman queen. Over the years, she has been portrayed as an unrepentant temptress and, more recently, as a smart political leader, but always in a thoroughly gendered fashion, wielding uniquely female power.
The exhibit waxes so enthusiastic about Cleopatra’s lasting allure that I had to test it for myself. Do people really care that much about Cleopatra, or is this a product of Philadelphia’s, National Geographic’s and a couple of archaeologists’ wishful thinking? Despite its claims within the exhibit to the contrary, the exhibition website does not open many avenues of exploration into Cleo’s legacy. National Geographic’s Cleopatra home page provides mostly passive video links that continue to claim Cleo’s importance without a whole lot of contemporary backup. (Even the interactive Cleopatra game is behind a download and cost barrier...) So, I tried a different tactic. A google image search for Cleopatra yields 1,910,000 hits ranging from Elizabeth Taylor to Halloween costumes to computer games. Perhaps most fascinating to me was a Daily News article detailing the controversy over Angelina Jolie’s selection to play Cleopatra in an upcoming Scott Rudin film. Paired with a detailed computer model of the ancient queen whom no historian would claim can be fully physically described, Jolie is criticized for being too white. I suppose that a place in the contemporary debate over race, power and image is quite enough to prove relevance.
So in the end, what role does this blockbuster traveling exhibition play in the public history endeavor to spread critical, engaged historical scholarship to a wider audience? Exhibits like this act as gateways, bringing people into institutions which likely have less splashy but no less provocative exhibition gems hidden away in their anterior wings (although the Franklin’s mainstay science exhibits never seem to be lacking for foot traffic). More importantly, exhibits like these offer opportunities for partnerships between far-flung universities, collecting institutions, consultant historians and exhibition designers who can work together with the promise of their product reaching diverse audiences, hungry for “something new” in their favorite museums. Collaboration is a public history buzz word for a reason. When more people work together, topics broaden (pop culture meets artifact connoissureship meets environmental history) and that ever-elusive relevance is achieved.
NOTE: The photo, taken by a member of my family, is of me in the “Cleopatra shop” in the Franklin Institute on 7/10/10.
(top to bottom) Pub in Poundbury, UK (town built 1993); image of Rosa Luxemburg on portion of Berlin Wall, Potsdamer Platz, Berlin; circuitboard; 2009 model PT Cruiser by Chrysler; St. Louis Unions vintage baseball player