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A U.S.-British accord

May 11, 2003|Ann Conway | Times Staff Writer

It was a party made for culture vultures: cocktails in the foyer of one gallery, a signing ceremony in another and dinner in a third. And for those attending the black-tie gala marking the culmination of three years of negotiations between the British Museum and the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art, it was a chance to celebrate a new chapter for the Santa Ana institution.

The joint venture will allow the Bowers to exhibit antiquities from the London museum, starting with a show of artifacts from the era of the queen of Sheba and a display of Egyptian mummies beginning in fall 2004. British Museum director Neil MacGregor and Bowers President Peter Keller signed the five-year agreement at the $1,000-a-ticket gala, which was fit for, well, the queen of Sheba.

Seated in a dimly lighted Bowers gallery glittering with a display of rare gems, guests sampled delicacies such as foie gras custard with bacon-shallot ragout, duck breast served over vanilla-apple and duck confit ravioli, and a pyramid of Assam tea-flavored mousse. But not before the formalities of the signing took place, with American and British flags serving as a backdrop. "This project is a result of friendship," MacGregor told about 120 guests, adding that the original idea for setting up the British Museum in 1753 was "revolutionary."

"It was the first time any country had decided to buy a collection and make it available to its citizens," MacGregor said at the May 2 event. Previously, royalty had the only access to grand collections, he explained.

Showing artifacts in California will enable visitors to become acquainted with the British Museum without a trip to London, MacGregor said. "The interest for us is that we can reach millions of people in one of the most densely populated areas of America. A whole new public is reached."

One hundred pieces of bronze and alabaster, now on display in the British facility's Arabian Gallery, will be showcased at the queen of Sheba exhibition. "It will represent the archeology of Yemen in South Arabia," MacGregor said. The three-month show will be followed by "Death and the Afterlife in Ancient Egypt," featuring a rare collection of mummies.

"We are thrilled. Most museums would give their life for a mummy," said Bowers board Chairman Donald P. Kennedy. "We've been trying to get this agreement in place for three years. I must admit, I thought it would be simple. But it hasn't been easy e-mailing across the ocean."

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