Cleopatra: The Search for the Last Queen of Egypt Review – An Exciting, Fascinating Experienc

On an unseasonably warm and beautiful winter’s day I joined three friends for a drive from Chicago to Milwaukee to see Cleopatra: The Search for the Last Queen of Egypt on view at the Milwaukee Public Museum until April 29th.   It was the first visit to the museum for one of our group. (She can’t wait to return.)  Entering the museum, the three repeat visitors noticed many positive changes.  All of us were impressed as we entered the museum.


On our way to the exhibition we had the chance to explore some of the museum and were especially impressed with The Streets of Old Milwaukee, which felt like a visit to another city. We also loved the Native American display showing six tribes in a moving circular display. We also took advantage of the IMAX Theatres’ presentations to better prepare ourselves for the Cleopatra Exhibition. 


We decided to see Cleopatra’s Universe which is an original production from the Daniel M. Soref Planetarium.  Viewers had the chance to travel back in time to see re-creations of the Alexandria Library, Cleopatra’s Palace, and the Pharos Lighthouse.  Powerful influences from the Greek and Roman world that impacted Cleopatra were also revealed.


Our decision to see the IMAX adventure, Mysteries of Egypt was a good one.  It was a very exciting and rewarding experience.  It was the next best thing to  a really visiting Egypt - flying, boating, exploring.  Omar Sharif was our charming guide.  It did a good job of putting us in the mood for the exhibition itself.


We were told that once we entered the exhibition there was no re-entrance so we prepared ourselves for the recommended 90 minutes.  The Museum Café beckoned and we enjoyed delicious soup and sandwiches.  The food was varied, reasonably priced and delicious.


And now to Cleopatra.  Entering the exhibition, we were given an artifact card and an audio wand.  The 4-minute movie that opens the exhibition was just beginning. Here we learned about the parallel stories of Dr. Zahi Hawass and Franck Goddio who are searching for artifacts that tell the story of Cleopatra VII from the sands of Egypt to the depths of the Mediterranean Sea.


As the movie ended the curtain opened and revealed a Ptolemaic queen who might be Cleopatra. Listening to the audio tour (provided to every guest as part of the exhibition experience) we enjoyed listening to the “voice of Cleopatra” taking us through her life and times.


Frank Goddio, considered to be one of the most successful and respected marine archaeologists in the world, began his first excavation looking for Cleopatra artifacts in 1996 He ultimately discovered the ancient submerged Royal Quarters of Alexandria, the mythic lost cities and monuments of Heracleion, and the suburb of Canopus in the Bay of Aboukir in following years.  This exhibition brings visitors into Goddio’s world in several ways.  Each visitor receives an “artifact card”.  Leaving the statue visitors pass over a glass bridge and look for their individual artifact in the water.  Moving on there are photos depicting the divers finding many or the artifacts on display. The 150 artifacts from Cleopatra’s time and help visitors experience the present-day search for the elusive queen, which extends from the sands of Egypt to the depths of the Bay of Aboukir near Alexandria. The exhibition shows the modern-day parallel stories of two ongoing expeditions being led in Egypt by Dr. Zahi Hawass, Egypt’s pre-eminent archaeologist and former Minister of State for Antiquities, and Franck Goddio, French underwater archaeologist and director of IEASM.  The two perspectives are fascinating.


Some of what is known about Cleopatra is that she was the last great pharaoh before Egypt succumbed to Roman opposition, lived from 69 – 30 B.C., with a rule that was marked with political intrigue and challenges to her throne. She captivated two of the most powerful men of her day, Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, as she attempted to restore Egypt to its former superpower status.


This exhibition attempts to reveal the real woman in contrast to the many myths about her.  Note the following:


MYTH: There was only one Cleopatra.

FACT: The Cleopatra we are familiar with is Cleopatra VII Thea Philopator. There are at least seven other known “Cleopatras” who lived during the Ptolemaic dynasty in which Cleopatra VII ruled, including her daughter, Cleopatra Selene II.

MYTH: Cleopatra was an Egyptian.

FACT: Cleopatra was of Greek descent. She was born during winter 69-68 BC, probably in Alexandria. She belonged to the Lagides dynasty, a dynasty of Macedonian (North Greece) origin, who ruled Egypt since the end of the IV century BC. The founder of her dynasty, Ptolemy I, served as a general to Alexander the Great and became ruler of Egypt after Alexander’s death. The Ptolemies then established Alexandria, Egypt as the center of culture and commerce in the ancient world. This is where Cleopatra VII later ruled and lived in the royal palace.

MYTH: Cleopatra was a seductress.

FACT: Popular culture portrays Cleopatra as a temptress, seducing Julius Caesar and becoming his mistress, then later luring Mark Antony. However, Cleopatra had her children and her country’s best interest in mind. At that time, Rome was the greatest superpower of the Mediterranean. Called the Imperator, Julius Caesar was a victorious commander and a very influential leader. Rome and Egypt had an uneasy alliance. Rome needed Egypt’s wheat, Egypt needed Rome’s protection. To secure power, Cleopatra, navigated an alliance through her union with Caesar. After Caesar’s death, Cleopatra entered into an alliance with Mark Antony, one of the three rulers of Rome. Later, when he was involved in a power struggle with Caesar’s nephew Octavian, Antony and Cleopatra joined forces to attempt to control both Rome and Egypt.

MYTH: Cleopatra took her own life because she was heartbroken by her lover’s death.

FACT: Egypt fell to the Romans after a crushing defeat of Cleopatra’s navy by Octavian’s Roman forces. Mark Antony committed suicide shortly thereafter. It was rumored that Cleopatra would be captured by Octavian and paraded through the streets of Rome in shackles as a war prisoner by Octavian. Nearly two weeks after Mark Antony took his own life, she followed suit, likely in part to prevent the shame of public humiliation.

MYTH: Cleopatra died from the bite of a poisonous snake.

FACT: While legend says that she died from the bite of an asp, a poisonous snake, we still today are not sure what killed Cleopatra. The snake bite may have been an invention of the Romans in an attempt to defame her memory and connect her to something with vile and evil connotations. Cleopatra was very knowledgeable about poisons, writing books on the subject. Other theories suggest that she may have ingested a poisonous fig or applied a toxic substance to her skin.


The exhibition is compelling and fascinating and well worth the drive from Chicago to Milwaukee. The Museum Center hosts over 500,000 visitors per year and is conveniently located in downtown Milwaukee. It opened to the public in 1884; it is a not-for-profit organization operated by the Milwaukee Public Museum, Inc.


Milwaukee Public Museum

800 W. Wells St.

Milwaukee, WI

414.223.4676 or  for tickets

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