ALL THAT GLITTERS St. Petersburg Museum Lands Major Exhibition of Antiquities, but Not the One They Aimed At

Article excerpt

ST. PETERSBURG -- The statue of Hemiunu presides over more than

four millennia of Egyptian history, his features the very

picture of serenity.

This life-size depiction of a Fourth Dynasty vizier -- engineer

of the largest pyramid in Giza -- is the pride of Florida

International Museum's newest exhibition, "Splendors of Ancient

Egypt."

But Hemiunu's visage has been the only calm face associated with

the blockbuster show.

The day before the exhibition opened to the public, workers were

still adjusting lighting, hanging text panels and wiping

fingerprints off the glass cases. And with good reason.

The museum had created and installed the exhibition -- 175

antiquities in 12 architecturally enhanced galleries -- in 2 1/2

weeks, working around the clock.

Robert Steven Bianchi, the prominent Egyptologist who curated

the show, called it "one for the Guinness Book of World Records."

It wasn't meant to be that way, of course. More than a year of

careful planning gone into the exhibition's original concept, to

bring 75 antiquities directly from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

But just 10 days before the show was scheduled to open, a major

reorganization of the Egyptian government created havoc, first

delaying and then canceling the original exhibition.

Luckily, Bianchi -- and Hemiunu -- came to the rescue.

Through the curator's connections with the Roemer-und

Pelizaeus-Museum in Hildesheim, Germany, Florida International

was able to negotiate the loan of the German museum's Egyptian

antiquities -- the first time the works had been allowed to

travel since the museum's inception in 1911.

"They literally gave me the keys to the storerooms," Bianchi

said in a recent interview. Together with the German curator

Arne Eggebrecht, Bianchi chose a collection of works that range

from the pre-dynastic era to the Greco-Roman period.

Although tired and hoarse from overwork, Bianchi joked about the

situation: "If you work 30 years in the field, you get of couple

of cliffhangers."

James Broughton, executive director of Florida International,

also gave credit to the leaders of Hildesheim and St.

Petersburg, as well as the museum's board.

"This project could easily have been given up on but the board

and the community kept the faith," he said. "Our stars sure did

collide in the middle of the night to our mutual benefit."

In fact, Eggebrecht ventured that the Florida museum ended up

with a superior collection.

"In Cairo, the first-class things they don't lend at all," he

said. "But besides Nefertiti in the Berlin Museum, the Hemiunu

is in Germany the second most important work of ancient Egypt."

And because the Roemer-und Pelizaeus-Museum is beginning to

build a new facility, Eggebrecht was able to let his best

artifacts travel.

"With this collection, you can get an in-depth look into one of

the great steps of civilization," he said.

But unlike the museum's inaugural exhibition -- "Treasures of

the Czars" in 1995 -- the current exhibition is less about show

and more about substance. There's an increased emphasis on

artistic and historic significance and fewer magnificent jewels

and precious metals.

Visitors won't hear as many "oohs and aahs" but it's a show more

likely to attract repeat customers. Some of the galleries

recreate temples, tombs and causeways, including the Hippostyle

hall of the temple at Karnak. …