The Blockbuster Egyptian Exhibit That Almost Wasn't

A Florida museum's travails point to the difficulties surrounding international cultural exchanges

The Florida International Museum in downtown St. Petersburg, Fla., is a bland boxy building that a visitor might pass without a second glance. But the drama that recently unfolded behind the beige-colored walls of this former department store is something the museum world, Egyptologists, and city residents won't soon forget.

What happened is an international tale that stretches from the palm-fringed boulevards of this Florida city to antiquities-rich Egypt to the meandering corridors of a German museum. It involved a cast of cultures, nearly caused a community to lose millions of tourism dollars, and threatened to shut down a young museum with ambitious intentions of bringing astonishing works of art to a city with limited art venues.

The saga, which centers around an Egyptian exhibit, provides a snapshot of the complex task museums face in mounting major shows. It also highlights what some say may be a trend: a reluctance by Egypt and other countries to lend their artifacts for reasons ranging from growing nationalism to cost to greater awareness of the value of objects.

"There's always been an undercurrent of [reluctance to lend abroad] in ancient Egypt," says Robert Steven Bianchi, an Egyptologist. "I think now it is increasing, and we're seeing that ... in other nations as well."

The Florida International Museum, which opened in January 1995, has no permanent exhibit but was created to serve as a venue for international exchanges. Museum organizers hoped to follow the first show - "Treasures of the Czars" - with a blockbuster Egyptian exhibit in the vein of the King Tutankhamen exhibit of the 1970s and the Ramses the Great show mounted during the '80s. Indeed, the museum's exhibition director, James Broughton, had been instrumental in bringing Ramses to the United States.

Mr. Broughton again turned to Cairo, where antiquities officials agreed to lend him 72 artifacts from the Egyptian Museum for "Splendors of Ancient Egypt," a look at 4,500 years of Pharaonic history.

Last May, after the Egyptian secretary general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities formally announced the agreement and sent a letter of intent to Florida, Broughton, curator Dr. Bianchi, and others involved began the laborious process of planning the exhibit.

Long days were spent in the steamy halls of the unair-conditioned museum in Cairo, selecting and photographing objects. Meanwhile, back in Florida, millions of dollars were being spent marketing and getting ready for the big show.

But while the plans progressed, Broughton was still without a written technical agreement, and the fees began to escalate. It was a disturbing sign to Florida's team, but they had already spent money up front and had little choice but to agree to the Egyptian terms. In November, the objects were packed and ready for transport to the US. A few weeks later, the contract was finally sent. The agreement, however, contained new terms that required the Florida museum to be financially responsible for other locations to which the exhibit would travel. In essence, Florida would have to guarantee paying up to $10 million for the display.

Broughton was dispatched to Egypt to try to resolve the issue. At the same time, though, an Egyptologist there won a lawsuit charging that the country should not allow these objects to leave its borders.

It appeared that "Splendors of Ancient Egypt," set to open Jan. 10, would stay within the walls of Cairo's famed museum. The announcement hit St. Petersburg like the weight of a pyramid. Local restaurants and hotels had planned packages; 90,000 tickets had already been sold; and significant funds had gone toward creating a catalog, banners, and other paraphernalia.

"It was a very sad day for me when I got on the plane leaving an exhibition behind," Broughton says of his return trip from Egypt.

But as the deadline approached, Broughton and Bianchi had a backup plan. A phone call was made to the director of the Roemer -und Pelizaeus-Museum in Hildesheim, Germany. Bianchi had known the director for years and was well acquainted with the museum's premier collection of Egyptian antiquities. "We told him the desperate straits we were in, and he said, 'come to Hildesheim,' " Broughton says. "He literally gave us the keys to his museum, and we were like kids in a toy store."

Within 26 days the Florida International Museum staged a new exhibit that many Egyptologists claim is as spectacular as the failed Cairo show. Working around the clock, the crew in both Germany and Florida selected 175 objects, redesigned gallery spaces, rewrote object labels, and reprinted marketing materials. It's a feat many say is unprecedented. "It's incredible what was accomplished in so short a time," says Gay Robins, associate professor of ancient Egyptian art at Emory University in Atlanta.

Despite the delayed opening (the exhibit began Feb. 6), a cancelation of several thousand tickets, and the costs involved to re-engineer exhibits, the museum hopes to at least break even. The fee for the artifacts from Germany is significantly less than what was asked by Cairo, and officials still hope to sell 550,000 tickets.

While the community is reveling in the way the museum was saved from shutting down entirely, some here have questioned whether the predicament could have been avoided. Why, for instance, did the museum pour so much money into the exhibit when hints of the difficulties were evident earlier in the process? they ask. And why didn't it get a written agreement in the beginning?

Broughton and Bianchi insist they were not naive in their dealings with Egypt. Both have built up considerable rapport and reputation with authorities there. They say they realized it would be a challenging process, but didn't receive any negative signals from authorities.

"This business is not a science," Broughton says. "You're dealing with totally different cultures, in most cases [with] people who don't look at time or legal aspects the same."

"Many exhibitions with which I've been involved were consummated on the strength of a handshake with the paperwork to follow, and many ... with all the paperwork legally binding in an order that would hold up in an American court of law, fell apart at the very last minute," Bianchi says.

Broughton admits that they probably should not have moved forward with the vast amount of expenditures - which are usually spent up front in a project like this - until they got a technical agreement. "However, in the final analysis, it probably wouldn't have made any difference" because of the Egyptian court ruling that barred the objects Florida had chosen from leaving the country.

The struggles the museum went through signal the increasing difficulty of launching major exhibits from Egypt. Several court cases in recent years have challenged the right of the government to send art abroad, and other museums have experienced difficulties as well. Last year the Royal Academy in London was also set to borrow pieces from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo but was denied the artifacts at the last moment.

Egyptian officials acknowledge there is a growing sense among the Egyptian public that if people want to see the country's precious antiquities they should visit Egypt. "There is a great uproar in the media and among Egyptian archaeologists that these priceless artifacts should not travel because they are liable to be damaged or lost," says Abdelaleem El-Abyad, director of press and information at the Egyptian Embassy in Washington. The Egyptian government is trying to work out strict guidelines for what can and cannot be loaned, he says.

Still, some say the reluctance to lend artifacts isn't restricted to Egypt. "Museums in general look more closely now at lending things," says Peter Lacovara, associate curator of ancient Egyptian, Nubian, and Near Eastern art at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. "It's a big expense to insure them, it's a big expense to lend them, and there are less resources to meet those costs."

Others say that, at the same time, many countries are opening up their collections in response to an expanding global economy. "These nations that were not part of this economic environment in the past realize that their art is a valuable commodity as a source of revenue," Bianchi says.

In St. Petersburg, what threatened to become a disaster has resulted in an ending that museum officials say they couldn't have written themselves. "What was accomplished is truly unparalleled," Broughton says. "We're telling the same story we started out to tell with the Egyptian collection. On top of that ... it has turned into a magnificent friendship between two cities that exemplifies what the [purpose of these exhibits] is all about."

*'Splendors of Ancient Egypt' continues in St. Petersburg, Fla., through July 7.

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