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At the Museum: 'Cleopatra' exhibit goes beyond her political motives

June 20, 2012|By Oliver Gettell, Los Angeles Times
  • A visitor to the California Science Center views artifacts in the "Cleopatra, The Search for the Last Queen of Egypt" exhibit.
A visitor to the California Science Center views artifacts in the "Cleopatra,… (Brian van der Brug, Los Angeles…)

The show: "Cleopatra: The Exhibition" at California Science Center

The premise: Although the slightly soapy tag line boasts "She ruled the men who ruled the world," this expansive exhibition goes beyond the notion of Cleopatra as a scheming seductress and presents a fuller picture of her as a charismatic political and religious leader, a woman of great intelligence, and a caring wife and mother.

Her story is largely told through artifacts discovered by the French underwater archaeologist Franck Goddio, who has been mapping and excavating the sunken Egyptian cities of Alexandria (the site of Cleopatra's palace), Heracleion and Canopus since 1992.

"The legend of Cleopatra has been twisted," Goddio said in a phone call from Paris. "What we are finding — from a topographical point of view, an archaeological point of view, a historical point of view — shows a different type of person than the legend. She was a woman of state, a very strong ruler controlling a very strong kingdom."

The goods: A short introductory film plays before rising to reveal a darkened, blue-hued gallery illuminated by pools of light. More than 150 artifacts inside include delicate religious figurines and tiny gold coins inscribed with Cleopatra's likeness as well as large-scale objects such as a pair of 16-foot granite statues of a Ptolemaic king and queen.

The ancient relics are supplemented by modern technology, as flat-screen TVs show animated graphics and optional hand-held audio devices provide narration as if in Cleopatra's own voice. The sunlit final sections focus on archaeologist Zahi Hawass' ongoing search for Cleopatra's tomb and depictions of Cleopatra throughout the centuries.

Don't miss: The Naos of the Decades, a black granite shrine inscribed with hieroglyphs, dates to the 4th century BC. According to Goddio, it is the oldest astrological calendar in the world. Also on display is the only known example of what is believed to be Cleopatra's handwriting, on a papyrus document.

Kid component: The center is a popular destination for school field trips (and occasionally summer camps); those looking for a quiet stroll will have the best luck after 2 p.m. on weekdays and during the morning hours on weekends.

The pedigree: The exhibition is from the producers of the blockbuster "Tutankhamun: The Golden King and the Great Pharaohs," which opened at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in June 2005.

Extra credit: The center is currently showing the Imax movie "Mysteries of Egypt" on its expansive seven-story screen. The film explores the history and culture of the ancient empire and stars Egyptian actor Omar Sharif.

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