Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Cleopatra's Allure

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.

~ Adina Langer

1 comment:

  1. Celebrities past and present

    Thanks to Adina for introducing us to one of the latest installments in the new era of the blockbuster exhibit. The Franklin Institute’s Cleopatra show compares well with New York’s Discovery Times Square Exposition King Tut show, also from National Geographic: As in Philadelphia, King Tut is sold to New Yorkers on billboards in the city and suburbs and on the commuter rail and bus lines. Travelers to New York can also purchase hotel packages. We can even buy reduced price to tickets to the King Tut show at Costco! Notably, King Tut has also been franchised and you can know become intimate with his bits and pieces at the Denver Art Museum as well. One wonders if other big box “McTuts” will soon open worldwide. Given the premise of these expositions, why not?

    So, what is the premise at work in these shows? I suggest the new blockbusters operate in the realm of celebrity and thus produce media more comfortably situated in the supermarket checkout stand than in a museum, bookstore, or, let alone, a library. While this may appear nostalgic or downright snobby, I don’t think I would get too much push back from “NatGeo” or the other producers of these shows for this assessment.

    As Adina points out, visitors to the Cleopatra show are treated to nicely staged and theatrical lit productions that use artifacts as scaffolding for a story of mystery, discovery, and ultimately passive appropriation. Cleopatra, like her celebrity players Helen Hayes, Claudette Colbert, Sofia Lauren, Elizabeth Taylor and Angelina Jolie, exists for mass pleasure. NetGeo simply provides access to what we inherently desire. There is no doubt that NatGeo (or at least its marketing department) would agree that Cleopatra is a tragic sex symbol meeting the expectations for celebrity womanhood well grounded in American popular culture. There is no academic substance here, no reflection or criticism, no knowledge exchange. It is simply a latter day Barnum Museum offering us to come as we are so that that we can become awash in our own desires.

    Now, if the show was simply about Cleopatra this would not really be problematic. The contradictions come through in the way she is coupled as the focus of the show with those professionally pursuing her: Frank Goddio and Zahi Hawass, the male archaeologists whose excavations and penetrations stand even with and above the artifacts they have brought to light. As Adina points out most of the artifacts on display are at best only possibly associated with Cleopatra. Therefore, in this show especially, it is solely the search, the quest, the raid, and the hopeful chance of becoming intimate with “celebrity” that lies at the center of the latter day blockbuster. Archaeologists themselves are made into artifacts and used as scaffolding for validating modern desire as the substance of history and museum display.