By Jeanne Marie Stumpf, MS, PhD
The mid-July pilgrimage for Cleveland Museum of Art members to view Cleopatra: The Search for the Last Queen of Egypt at the Cincinnati Museum Center was an adventure rich in wayfarer delights. Though our tour was accomplished in a “modicum of time” (certainly when compared to the 2,000 years during which this legacy was lost to sea and sand), it felt almost as thrilling as Zahi Hawass’s and Franck Goddio’s rescue of the artifacts themselves.
The exhibition steeped visitors in the details of the legendary queen’s daily life. Towering about 16 feet tall, red granite colossi of a Ptolemaic queen and king—once part of the landscape of Cleopatra’s life in the ancient city of Heracleion—were now part of ours. We walked between and around places where only royalty (considered sacred) had then been allowed. A papyrus document signed in Greek by Cleopatra, translated as “let it be so” or “make it happen,” brought a sense of intimacy to our experience. The sacred and profane objects of the queen’s life—the naos (shrine), offering table, incense burner, implements, jewelry, and coins of gold, silver, and bronze—all palpably revealed her presence. The exhibition’s audio features were haunting and effective.
Our next stop—the Taft Museum of Art, listed on the National Register of Historic Places—proved to be a small gem. We traveled there to admire the artistry of Tiffany in the exhibition In Company with Angels: Seven Rediscovered Tiffany Windows. The fascinating history of the angels—which were commissioned in the late 19th century, rescued from the demolition of their original home (the Swedenborgian Church of the New Jerusalem) during the construction of Interstate 71, and later renovated—was brought to life by vivid docent presentations, as well as an intangible aura cast by the angels themselves.
At the Contemporary Arts Center (the first museum in the United States designed by a woman, Zaha Hadid), we enjoyed explorations of all sorts at the UnMuseum level—interactive, spatial, visual, kinetic, audio, and cognitive. It was a fitting way to experience an architecturally unique environment where stairways seemed like escalators, angles abounded, hallways dead-ended, and the exterior appeared to be made of floating blocks. Two exhibitions there captured our attention: Keith Haring: 1978–1982 and Matthew Monahan. Keith Haring’s style evolved from early experimental work (documented in the exhibition) to the iconic babies, pigs, dogs, and images surrounding the themes of relationships and environmental and social awareness that he is famous for today. Haring’s frenetic pace dazzled and inspired museum visitors. Meanwhile, Monahan’s sculpture presented a meld of ancient and modern: figurative and alien, constructed of disparate materials, these works played on our cultural constructions in interesting new ways.
Our visit to two Rookwood Pottery locations (the original kilns, now a restaurant, and the new production facility) grounded us in the now-internationally-renowned American tradition of art pottery. Interestingly, and somewhat in parallel to the female-designed Contemporary Arts Center, Maria Longworth’s Rookwood Pottery was the first female-run manufacturing company in the United States. Viewing the old and new facilities side-by-side highlighted the skills, creativity, and craft inherent in this 100-plus-year-old tradition. Perhaps unsurprisingly, shopping proved popular at the Rookwood locations.