By SUSAN ASCHOFF, staff writer
©St. Petersburg Times, published February 2, 1996
St. Petersburg has learned it can present world-class shows of cultural and historical significance, and reap the rewards of a half-million people who come to see them, who stay in the hotels, eat at the restaurants, shop at the stores and take the good word back to others.
But the city and museum have also learned that the blockbuster show is more difficult than suspected.
Each risks millions of dollars in investment. And one success does not guarantee the next.
"I hope this community can understand how delicate some of these negotiations have been, are, and will be now and in the future," said exhibition director James E. Broughton, addressing the media and public in January upon his return from Europe after arranging "Splendors."
"Splendors of Ancient Egypt" cost more than $7-million to produce, and much of that was spent before its centerpiece -- artifacts from the 2,800-year rule of the pharaohs -- had even arrived.
The exhibit, scheduled from Feb. 6 to July 7, displays treasures ranging from a massive, five-ton granite sarcophagus, or coffin, to an exquisite bracelet, ringed by hundreds of tiny semiprecious stones still strung on the original gold wires.
Museum officials project that 600,000 people will visit.
Yet "Splendors" almost didn't open at all. Originally intended to showcase 72 artifacts from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, it was postponed from a Jan. 10 start date when the Egyptians and the local museum failed to agree on a contract. The already crated items were stuck in Egypt.
Broughton then turned to the Roemer and Pelizaeus Museum in Hildesheim, Germany, which has a renowned Egyptian collection of its own, particularly of artifacts from the Old Kingdom period of about 2300 B.C.
The Pelizaeus loaned, packed and shipped the 170-plus artifacts now displayed in 12 galleries at Florida International Museum in an astounding 18 days.
"I think the recovery of this exhibition has been remarkable," said St. Petersburg Mayor David Fischer. "People like to count you out -- this city never gives up."
St. Petersburg's effort to become the site of major cultural exhibitions began with the search for a single show in spring 1991. St. Petersburg council member Connie Kone and Mayor Fischer urged the city to vie for a traveling "Catherine the Great" exhibit from Russia. They liked the panache -- what it could do for the city's ego.
The "Catherine" proposal fell through, but city officials hooked up with Broughton, who had helped bring shows to Memphis in his position as that city's cultural affairs director. By May 1992, nine local executives had formed a corporation and brought Broughton on as director.
Twice, their efforts to land an exhibition of Russian artifacts fell through as negotiations with Russian museums collapsed. The third try proved the charm. A contract was signed with the Kremlin Museums in Moscow in October 1993. On Jan. 11, 1995, "Treasures of the Czars" opened in downtown St. Petersburg, displaying 272 belongings of the Romanovs from 1613 to 1917. Everything from a child's carriage to a golden Faberge portrait egg was ensconced in, of all places, a former department store transformed into a permanent exhibition space.
During "Czars," the museum announced its next exhibit would be the Egyptian "Splendors."
Both the "Czars" and "Splendors" premiered in St. Petersburg, making the museum here responsible for everything from constructing display cases to shopping for other venues.
A Greek exhibit on Alexander the Great, scheduled to open in October, was organized elsewhere. That exhibit was in Rome in December -- about the time officials here were polishing their pyramid murals.
Financial supporters of Florida International Museum include museum board chairman John Galbraith, who is guaranteeing more than $5.4-million in loans; Florida Progress and the St. Petersburg Times, each with a $250,000 loan guarantee; and the city of St. Petersburg, with $1.5-million in loan guarantees. The Times also has given the museum a $700,000 interest-free loan. Private business sponsors contribute cash and in-kind services, such as reduced fares on airlines or information booths.
Although the "Czars" show was welcomed as a milestone for St. Petersburg, vaulting the city to a higher plane of both artistic and tourist attention, "Splendors of Ancient Egypt" makes it real, officials believe.
Visitors "saw what we knew," Fischer said. "We have a great city."