Egypt Meets Wisconsin: Cleopatra Arrives in Milwaukee

Cleopatra: The Search for the Last Queen of Egypt

Here’s your chance to stand between two sixteen-foot tall stone statues of a king and queen of Egypt, just as Cleopatra once did in the ancient city of Heracleion as she was crowned the last pharaoh of Egypt. These two imposing figures will spend several months in Milwaukee posing for thousands of visitors’ photos, but for generations of the Ptolemaic royal family, they stood to either side of a passage that was strictly for a pharaoh or the attending high priest. That’s pretty impressive stuff.

Then try to make out the tiny hieroglyphics of the Egyptian calendar on a broken obelisk. Or see coins and gold jewelry from the ruins of Alexandria, sphinxes with the faces of former pharaohs, and much more. This whole exhibit wraps around the mystique of Cleopatra VII – yes, there was more than one, but only one of them has become the household name even to those among us least interested in history. We see her in movies, including a new one with Angelina Jolie, but the truth is no one is really sure what Cleopatra looked like. Whatever her appearance she was attractive enough to seduce both Julius Caesar and Mark Antony and bear them children. She was shrewd enough to keep alliances with influential Romans to protect her empire, at least until the unsympathetic half of a divided Rome defeated her lover Mark Antony and they both famously committed suicide within a couple weeks of each other. Their tombs were never found. Much of Cleopatra’s cities disappeared, taken not so much by victors and looters but by tsunami and the sands at the bottom of the sea.

Yesterday, Peung and I had a chance to get a sneak peek of the traveling exhibit Cleopatra: The Search for the Last Queen of Egypt before it opened today for the general public at the Milwaukee Public Museum. It is fantastic.

Much of this collection was found by the team of French underwater archaeologist Franck Goddio, who was on hand for the preview, and includes objects from the lost city of Heracleion, Canopus, and Cleopatra’s palace in Alexandria, all now submerged in the Mediterranean. A “Stop Spot” among the galleries features a Wisconsin archaeologist who will be on hand to show visitors the tools of the painstaking work of documenting digs under water.

The Cleopatra experience begins with a four-minute video. Then at the entrance you are greeted by a spotlit stone statue that could be Cleopatra against a shimmering blue background suggestive of its discovery under the waves. The next hall is a glass walkway suspended over some of Goddio’s uncovered artifacts resting in the sands of a sea bed. It’s all a great warm up for what lies in the next galleries.

You’ll learn the story of Isis and Osiris, a myth that inspired a cult in the ancient empire to which Cleopatra – and the pharaohs before her – associated themselves with as earthly representatives. A headless statue in one of the galleries shows the physical features of Isis.

One room is also dedicated to the land-based search for Cleopatra, and makes a nod to Kathleen Martinez a professor from the Dominican Republic whose exploration through historical documents and impassioned appeal to pursue her theories pushed a land expedition by the former and long-time head of the Ministry of Antiquities, Dr. Zahi Hawass to their present search site for Cleopatra’s tomb at Taposiris Magna, just west of present-day Alexandria. National Geographic has a great article by Chip Brown about Cleopatra in the July 2011 issue.

And while you can’t see Cleopatra’s face – not for sure, anyway — you can see her handwriting on a couple pages of papyrus, and the final gallery contains images and clips of Cleopatra from her long popularity on the silver screen. While myth is fascinatingly separated from fact here among the gathered antiquities, it’s as much what we don’t know that will fill you with a sense of awe and capture your imagination.

I had a chance to visit temples associated with Isis while I was in Egypt. I am currently writing an e-book about my travels through Egypt and Syria (with photos), a sort of companion adventure to go with The Yogurt Man Cometh. Stay tuned!

If You Go (and you should!):

Milwaukee is lucky to be on the short list of American museums that will host this traveling exhibit, and will keep it from October 14, 2011 to April 29, 2012. Audio tours are available, narrated by “Cleopatra”.

Admission Prices for the Cleopatra Exhibit:

Adults $27.50 (Fri-Sun $29.50); Seniors (60+), Teens (13-17), Students w/ID $23.50 (Fri-Sun $25.50); Children/Youth (3-12) $19.00 (Fri-Sun $20.00). Museum Members pay about half these prices. Get Cleopatra tickets online or by calling (414) 223-4676 or (888)700-9069

Exhibit Hours:

Mon-Fri 9-5, Sat 9-7, Sun 10-6. Last entry is 90 minutes before the closing time.
Extended Hours: until 9pm Dec 26, 2011-Jan 2, 2012, Apr 6-15, and Apr 27-29, 2012.
Closed on Thanksgiving and Christmas, and closing early Oct 15 (last entry 1pm),
Dec 24 (last entry 1:30pm), Jan 19, 2012 (last entry 3pm), Feb 18, 2012 (last entry 3pm)

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