By Jeannine Sherman
Director of Public Relations
Mystery, intrigue, romance, drama, fame and fortune, agony and defeat.
I’m not recapping the latest episode of The Bachelor.
I’m talking about the life and times of Cleopatra, the last pharaoh of Egypt. She lived a privileged existence filled with glamour, wealth, power and influence that Kim Kardashian can only dream about.
She spoke seven languages, captivated two of the most powerful men of her time, wrote books and commanded a navy - all while rocking some serious kohl eyeliner. We’re talking Girl Power to the 10th…Power.
The Milwaukee Public Museum’s exhibit, Cleopatra: The Search for the Last Queen of Egypt, was a real eye-opener. I went in thinking I knew just about everything there was to know about Cleo – and realized I knew next to nothing. The truth is better than anything I could have imagined.
The journey begins not amidst the shifting desert sands, but underwater. Lost to the sea centuries ago, and only uncovered in the past decade by archaeologists, ancient Alexandria was once the home of Cleopatra’s empire, a cosmopolitan city of almost half a million that attracted scholars from around the world to its Great Library.
All study and no play makes Egyptians (and everyone else) dull. The exhibit also takes you through Canopus, a decadent playground for Egypt’s rich and famous and a favorite hangout of the cool kids, including Cleo. It was a continuous thorn in the side of the high-minded Romans…think of it as Vegas, BC-style.
What happens in Canopus…..
With more than 150 artifacts that include statues, ritual pieces, weapons, metal, coins, jewelry and more that haven’t seen the light of day in almost 2,000 years, it’s the kind of history that gives you goose bumps. My favorites for “wow” factor have to be the two 16-foot-tall colossal figures of a king and queen that once stood sentry to the temple where all Egypt’s pharaohs, including Cleo, were crowned. At 11,000 pounds each, these are truly massive!
I wonder, did she notice them as she entered the temple to claim her rightful destiny? Did she see the determined eyes of the majestic king, scanning the distance of a land now forgotten, or the calm resolution of the graceful queen?
The exhibit peels back the layers of time and walks you through what has to be one of history’s most fascinating lives. Cleopatra became Queen of Egypt at the age of 18. Soon after, she became the lover of Julius Caesar, and after his assassination, the lover of Mark Antony, strategically aligning herself with the Roman Empire through both alliances….or dalliances, whichever you prefer. Together the affairs produced four illegitimate children, one of which she married. Teaser alert: you’ll have to head to the exhibit to find out more about that one.
If you’ve watched the movie, you know how her story ends. Her eventual downfall at the hands of Roman ruler Octavian, the death of Mark Antony, and her own decision to commit suicide by snake rather than accept public humiliation by Rome, are all chronicled here. The same archaeological team who found the objects in this exhibit is now searching for the tomb of Cleopatra and her famous lover, so stay tuned for future installments.
While the artifacts are amazing and the story beats any reality TV show, I found myself mesmerized by the small details that shed light on the woman behind the brilliant strategist. She was known to be a beautiful charmer who loved to throw lavish parties and who had a mischievous streak. Why else would she and Mark Antony don disguises, leave the palace and head into the city at night to have fun, undetected? They called themselves “The Inimitable Livers,” and I think that tells you a lot about who they really were.
Out of this comprehensive look into a legendary life, it turned out to be three short words that ultimately made her real to me. Displayed almost reverently is an official document - a rare papyrus fragment signed by Cleopatra. Beneath her signature, she added the words “make it happen.”
In another place, in another time, it would have been the perfect moment for an ancient Egyptian “you go, girl!”
Instead, I quietly marveled at the strength and determination of an amazing woman who refused to be lost to history …. reaching out to me across two millennium.
Milwaukee Public Museum
800 West Wells Street
Cleopatra: The Search for the Last Queen of Egypt runs through April 29, 2012 at the Milwaukee Public Museum. Tickets are timed entry and include general Museum admission and an audio tour. The Museum recommends allowing two hours to explore the exhibit.