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Review of ‘Cleopatra: The Search for the Last Queen of Egypt’ at the Franklin Institute

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All the commercials and advertisements made me really expect a lot from “Cleopatra: The Search for the Last Queen of Egypt” at the Franklin Institute. (Daily through January 2, 2011. Tickets are $9.50-$29.50. Buy them online here.)  As I walked past the statue of Benjamin Franklin and saw the ticket line the bar was raised even more. The amount of people in line to buy tickets was incredible. Scores of crying babies and gigantic strollers moving ever so slowly through the line made me thankful that I bought my tickets over the phone and was able to go through the “express line.” The customer service guy kept mumbling and I had no idea where to go until he pointed to the corner and said “Go there!” He was a less than pleasant employee.

Now I was in line, which was great, I was one step closer to seeing this “great” exhibit. The only problem is the line was huge and they only let in around 20 people at a time to watch a movie that was four minutes long. The math for the average waiting time is: if you’re in a line that’s 100 people long, you’re going to be waiting at least 20 minutes. Now if the line was all the way to the bottom of the ramp that’s close to forty-five minutes of waiting and if you have kids you know that could be a terrible time.

Once in the exhibition there was a shortage of seats to watch the film. I admit I’ll blame the selfish people that decided that they wanted to sit just far enough away from the wall that no one else could fit, but still four or five people ended up standing. The video introduction was awesome with footage and interviews from the excavation of the flooded old Alexandria. With a sponsor like National Geographic I assumed this exhibit would be breathtaking. But once the big-screen television shot up into the ceiling producing a secret passageway (which was the most interesting part of the show) my expectations were brought to an abrupt end. The wavy lights that simulated an underwater adventure accompanied by a glass floor were somewhat amusing but the artifacts that were littered throughout the sand below made me hope that this wasn’t as good as it was going to get.

Finally! I entered the main exhibit hall and couldn’t have felt more confused.  The crowd of people from my group had stopped, gaping at the awkwardness of the layout.  I almost thought I heard everyone ask the people they came with “Where do we go now?”  And sadly, the same question ran through my mind the moment the crowd broke and I could see the scattered display cases and numerous artifacts.

In short, the exhibit was poorly laid out and was very crowded.  Attempting to follow the cases by audio tour numbers is impossible and the selection of artifacts wasn’t that interesting. Half of them weren’t even from the time period of Cleopatra! (post 50 B.C.) A lot of the artifacts were ceremonial stones from temples and were dated 3rd and 2nd century B.C.  which I thought wasn’t true to Cleopatra at all. I mean, they were Egyptian artifacts with captions such as “Cleopatra could have touched this!”  and “Jewelry that might have been worn by Cleopatra,” even though they were dated one hundred years before she was born. The huge granite statues that they excavated from underwater were awesome though. They stand twenty to thirty feet high and dominate the entire room providing the audience with a real sense of Egyptian past.

One of the few "Cleopatra" artifacts in the exhibit
If you’re going to take the audio tour, I highly recommend you don’t unless you want to hear a foreign accent portray Cleopatra telling stories of her life. The captions and walls of writing have a more scholarly way of giving you the facts.  The audio tour sounds like “While looking at this armor it reminds me of my army…” and little stories like that. I just didn’t understand how they could know EXACTLY what she was thinking since everything about her was destroyed by the Roman Empire after her suicide. In fact, the audio tour just made me believe that Cleopatra was a trampity-tramp-tramp who married her two younger brothers and then went after two of the most powerful Romans of her time (Caesar and Antony).

I wouldn’t recommend this exhibit at all. It wasn’t very interesting and it was quite disappointing for the price that you have to pay. The video isn’t IMAX, the exhibit was cluttered, and the most interesting part was the pop-culture references at the end about how Cleopatra has been portrayed over the years in film, which you could probably find on YouTube for free.

If you still decide on going make sure you get to go to through the rest of the Franklin Institute because Cleopatra will not make you leave satisfied. Also, reserve tickets to save yourself from the huge line as well as take advantage of the free planetarium show.