Just in time to coincide with the Region 1 DVD release of the 1963 film 'Cleopatra', the British Museum has recently opened an exhibition attempting to examine the mysteries behind the Egyptian queen. It's also the first major exhibition to take place in the museum's new Great Court, in a room located above and behind the central reading room. The museum has made real efforts to promote the exhibition, possibly seeking to absolve itself of some of the stigma it acquired following its recent "dull" exhibition about Roman gladiators. Nonetheless, the Cleopatra exhibition has received an equally negative collection of press reviews, generally damning the exhibition for its failure to adequately examine the character of Cleopatra, or her role in history. Despite the press reviews, I still thought I would visit the Cleopatra exhibition, figuring that even if the exhibition failed to expand on the historical aspects of the woman, it would nonetheless present an interesting picture of Egyptian life at the time of Cleopatra, and include an interesting collection of antiquities. However, I was generally very disappointed by the presentation of the exhibition, and indeed, by its lack of particularly relevant content. ORGANISATION Timed tickets for the exhibition are bought from a stand in the Great Court, and cost a depressingly dear £7 for adults (£3.50 for concessions), which includes a booklet summarising Cleopatra's life in bite-sized chunks for the MTV generation. Renting an audio guide to accompany the exhibition, which includes additional information on about fifteen of the exhibition's pieces will cost you an additional £3. I decided not to take the audio guide, so I can't really comment on how much it would enhance the exhibition. Getting to the actual exhibition involves walking up a flight of stairs around the outside of the reading room. The exhibition gallery is quite small, and ge
ntly curved, following the outside wall of the reading room, and the initial impression is that it's incredibly crowded. As you progress through the exhibition, it becomes less crowded, probably because visitors seem to accelerate as they tour it. It's likely that as the exhibition continues, it will become less popular, and the crowds will thin out. The exhibition is divided into a series of sections, arranged chronologically, from Cleopatra's Ptolemaic heritage through to the Emperor Augustus's accession after Antony committed suicide. The layout of the exhibition, however, is not entirely obvious to most visitors, apparently, because the outer wall, which runs along the length of the gallery, is dedicated to the European myth that arose around the character of Cleopatra over the last few hundred years. The result is that a visitor following the obvious path through the exhibition, will continually flip backwards and forwards in time between Roman-era Egypt and Second Millennium Europe. The most logical route through the collection is to ignore these pieces on the outer wall, until you have toured the exhibition of Cleopatra's life, and then go back to it - which counterintuitively involves walking back to the start of the exhibition again. THE EXHIBITION The very first panel of information you see upon entering the exhibition poses the question; "Who was the historical Cleopatra?" Was she a "queen of ruthless sensuality", or a "harlot who unmanned [Mark] Antony"? Clearly, the exhibition is seeking to provide some background to the personality of the historical figure. Cleopatra was the last of the Ptolemies. When Alexander the Great died in 323 BC, his land was divided among his generals, one of whom, Ptolemy I, took Egypt. The Ptolemies rule was at first strong, however, over time, their rule was weakened by petty feuds. The first section of the exhibition is devoted t
o the rule of the first twelve Ptolemies, and consists of a series of busts of some of the Ptolemaic rulers, and coins featuring their likenesses. The second section examines the city of Alexandria, which became a cosmopolitan capital under the Ptolemaic rule. This proved probably the most interesting of the sections of the sections of the exhibition, consisting of items uncovered by recent excavations in the sea and various sites around the city. The exhibits include a remarkably well-preserved and impressively intricate mosaic of a dog, and several likenesses of various Egyptian gods. The next section of the exhibition focuses (at last) on Cleopatra herself, entitled 'Cleopatra, Divine-Daughter, Father-Loving Lady of the Two Lands". Cleopatra was declared a goddess when she was just 4 years old, and went on to become ruler of both Upper and Lower Egypt. In this area of the exhibition, a display explains some of the ways in which sculptures of Cleopatra VII can be differentiated from sculptures of other contemporary Egyptian figures. However, these methods prove far from reliable, and the busts displayed in this section are generally labelled as "resembling Cleopatra" or "having the characteristics of Cleopatra". Probably the most interesting of the pieces on display in this section, and the one having the closest association with the ruler was a piece of papyrus bearing a proclamation by the queen, which may have been signed by her own hand. In the years before Cleopatra took the throne, the Roman Empire was beset by civil war. Pompey and Julius Caesar were the leaders of the two main factions. When Cleopatra's father, Ptolemy XII, died, many Egyptians supported her brother, Ptolemy XIII as the next ruler. Cleopatra was forced into exile, and Ptolemy XIII assisted Caesar's forces in their defeat of Pompey. When Caesar arrived in Alexandria, Ptolemy XIII's supporters presented Pompey's head to
Caesar, much to his dismay. During his stay in Ptolemy's palace in Alexandria, Cleopatra was smuggled into Caesar's room, according to legend, in a bedroll. It is said that Caesar was so taken with her beauty, that he assisted with the deposition of her brother, and installed her as the ruler of Egypt. In 46 BC, Cleopatra moved to Rome to live with Caesar, having born him a son, Caesarion. However, in 44 BC, when Caesar was murdered, Cleopatra returned to Alexandria, building a temple there in Caesar's honour. The fourth section of the exhibition supposedly focuses on Caesar's relationship with Cleopatra, but in actuality focuses almost entirely on Caesar himself. There are a series of busts, which like those of Cleopatra, cannot always be unambiguously associated with Caesar. There was something of a fashion in Rome at the time for people to seek to imitate Caesar's appearance as closely as possible, with the result that busts of any Roman nobleman closely resembled the Roman leader. Only one of the busts on display is confidently labelled as representing Julius Caesar. In 41 BC, Mark Antony summoned Cleopatra to Tarsus to discuss his need for Egyptian gold and grain. However, Antony didn't immediately fall for Cleopatra, instead selecting the sister of Octavian (Julius Caesar's great-nephew), Octavia for a wife. However, Antony soon left Octavia for Cleopatra, and she bore him twins - Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene. It is the affair between Antony and Cleopatra that is the subject of the fifth section of the exhibition. This, like the exhibition devoted to Caesar's relationship with Cleopatra, focuses mainly on Antony himself. Again, there is a series of busts, though these are more confidently associated with Antony than are those of Caesar. One of the most uninspiring exhibits is a plinth upon which a bronze statue of Antony may once have stood, but no longer does. Between 37 and 30 BC, t
here was conflict between Antony and Octavian, culminating in a major naval battle in 31 BC at Actium. Antony and Cleopatra escaped from the battle to Alexandria. Antony, so legend would have it, received false news that Cleopatra had committed suicide and took his own life. When Cleopatra heard of Antony's death, she also committed suicide. The sixth section of the exhibition looks at Octavian, or as he later called himself, Emperor Augustus. This section contains some of the most impressive busts in the exhibition, with some enormous marble and bronze heads, which are unequivocally labelled as depicting Emperor Augustus. The final chronological section of the exhibition examines of Octavian's version of the historical figure of Cleopatra, and consists of some of the abusive caricatures of the Egyptian leader that appeared over the next couple of centuries. For example, a terracotta lamp shows a woman, labelled as Cleopatra about as tentatively as most other exhibits in the collection, having sex with an enormous phallus attached to a crocodile. A marble relief depicts a boat with figures tentatively identified as Antony and Cleopatra having sex. Along the long outer wall of the exhibition are a series of historical depictions of Cleopatra since 1450, including Fifteenth century illustrations in German and French copies of Giovanni Boccaccio's work 'On The Lives of Famous Women'. CONCLUSIONS The difficulty of unambiguously identifying images of Cleopatra has undoubtedly reduced the value of the exhibition. Very few of the exhibits have any definite connection to the figure that the exhibition claims to be able to explode myths about, and therefore it's difficult to draw any decent conclusions about the figure from the pieces on display. There are, admittedly, some impressive statues, not least of which is the striking basalt figure of Cleopatra which appears on the posters promoting the exhibition. However
, overall, the most interesting exhibits have little direct connection to Cleopatra - such as the discoveries from the archaeological digs of the city of Alexandria, or the busts of Emperor Augustus. The exhibition space itself is embarrassingly cramped, and far too many visitors are allowed in during each time period. Staff in the exhibition know nothing about the pieces which are on display, which means that it's difficult to get any questions that should occur to you while touring the exhibition answered. For example, I noticed that none of the busts of Cleopatra bore the dual crown of the two lands of Egypt - and would have liked to know why she was never depicted wearing it, especially when statues of other Egyptian rulers, in the Egyptian galleries of the Museum, were. The ultimate disappointment is that despite the high price of admission to the gallery, I still don't feel that I can conclude whether Cleopatra was a highly sensual woman who was genuinely attracted to some of the Roman Empire's best known figures, or a manipulative harpy who used her incredible beauty to bend men to her will. Given that this was one of the main stated aims of the exhibition, it strikes me as something of a failure. --- A few of the exhibitions from the exhibition can be seen on the museum's 'Compass' webpage at http://www.thebritishmuseum.ac.uk/compass/ along with highlights from the museum's collections and other temporary exhibitions.