‘Quest for Immortality’ dwarfs King Tut show

It is the most empty exhibit room at the Milwaukee Public Museum that perhaps will pack the biggest wallop from now until August.

The 50-foot-long re-creation of a pharaoh’s 15th century burial chamber – its walls filled with the intricate details of a sacred script, but otherwise bare – is a part of what makes the new “Quest for Immortality: Treasures of Ancient Egypt” presentation extraordinary.

Contrary to our beliefs that you can’t take it with you, the Egyptians thought it necessary to – as museum spokeswoman Amy Chionchio put it – “spend a lifetime planning for an afterlife.”

And so we learn how the wealthy would make sure they had what they needed to live, even after they died. We see what some chose to pack for this mysterious trip: a wooden boat, furniture, games, jewelry, figurines to represent laborers who could come to life when needed.

More than 100 priceless artifacts, representing 2,000-plus years of history and a dozen kings, make this touring show twice as large as the Tutankhamun “King Tut” exhibit which caused a stir nationwide in the 1970s. Artifacts come from several sources, such as archaeological sites and the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

“Quest for Immortality,” in Milwaukee until Aug. 8, is the largest exhibit ever shown at the museum, and this is the show’s only Midwest stop. It requires 12,000 square feet and a $6 million budget. Chionchio, who is vice president of audience development, says the typical touring exhibit has a museum budget of under $1 million.

Visitors move at their own pace, and with an audio tour that has two tracks: one for children, the other for adults.

Artifacts are a study of both extravagance and optimism. We see how gods can be depicted in all sorts of ways – even as half-falcon/half-crocodile.

Mummy cases (“to protect the dead physically and magically”), as well as the pharaoh’s burial chamber, are remarkable for their elaborate designs and colorful detail. This is not merely artistic expression, but specific instructions and spells to reach a prosperous afterlife.

There is a stunning gold mask which once covered the face of the dead. Gold finger and toe stalls prevented delicate bone breakage. A short film mentions the Egyptians’ hope that life, as they knew it, would continue.

Is that much different than what people hope today? Chionchio doesn’t think so.

“What happens after this life? That’s still thought-provoking today, and it’s a question that will be asked long after we’re gone,” she says.

Timed-entry tickets to “Quest for Immortality” are $18.50 ($1 less for ages 62 and older) and $11.50 for ages 3-15. Go to www.mpm.edu or call (888) 700-9069 for details.

How did Milwaukee snag “Quest for Immortality” away from the Art Institute of Chicago and other heavyweight venues? Chionchio says it required proof of commitment, in several ways.

There were practical considerations: installing more 145 surveillance cameras, to meet security requirements, and making sure that freight elevators could handle at least 7,000 pounds of cargo at a time.

“The first truck of artifacts showed up March 4, at midnight, with a police escort,” Chionchio notes.

The museum’s marketing plan needed to promote the exhibit throughout the Midwest. Tickets have been sold as far away as South Dakota, so far. About 25,000 tickets have been sold to schools, for student field trips.

Museum staff and patrons also had to convince United Exhibits Group, a Danish operation that takes the exhibit on the road, that Milwaukee had a genuine interest in history – particularly ancient Egypt’s.

“They didn’t know where Milwaukee was,” Chionchio says, “and our population size was not enough to impress them. They had been dealing with many people – in Boston, New York, Chicago. But they liked the fact that 1 million people go through our building in a year.”

The Milwaukee museum’s goal is to have 225,000 people see “Quest for Immortality.”

“Temples, Tells and Tombs,” Chionchio also noted, began as a temporary exhibit at the museum in the early 1990s and remains in place because of its popularity. It includes artifacts from various types of religions and burial practices.

Here are a few of the events that go along with “Quest for Immortality.”

* Carter Lupton, the museum’s curator of ancient history, will talk about how the exhibit made its way to Milwaukee. His lecture and luncheon, which cost $15 to attend, will begin at 11:45 a.m. April 13. The reservation deadline is Tuesday; call (414) 278-2728.

* “Party to the MAX” is a family celebration of the exhibit that includes Egyptian games, food and beverages. It will be 6-9 p.m. April 15; the cost is $30 for adults and $20 for children. Reservations are advised.

* Egyptologists – people who specialize in the study of ancient Egypt – will conduct lectures at 7 p.m. on four Thursdays at the museum. They will come from as far away as Cairo. Topics are “The Riddle of the Royal Mummies” on April 22, “Popular Religion in Ancient Egypt” on May 20, “From Mumia to Mummy: Mummification in Ancient Egypt” on June 10 and “The Magic of Ancient Egyptian Art” on July 22.

Cost per lecture is $10 ($1 less for ages 62 and older) and $5 for ages 3-15. Reservations are advised; pre-lecture receptions begin at 5:30 p.m.

* An Egyptian jewelry-making workshop will be 1-3 p.m. May 2 at the museum. Participants, who must be at least 12 years old, will learn how to make jewelry from metal and stone. The $50 registration fee includes materials; reservations are required.

* “Mysteries of Egypt” is a new IMAX movie selection at the Milwaukee Public Museum. It takes viewers down the Nile River and into tombs of pharaohs. Tickets to the 60-foot-tall IMAX theater showings are $7 ($1 off for ages 62 and older) and $5.50 for ages 3-15. For more, call (888) 700-6096; there are five movie choices.

An “Egypt” movie ticket costs $4.50 when a ticket to the “Quest” exhibit is purchased at the same time.

Major touring exhibits typically include a nifty gift shop that plays off of the show’s theme, and “Quest for Immortality” is no exception. Fancy glass perfume holders, regal cat statues, Egyptian music, stationery and artwork are among the items for sale.

Most amazing, to me, are the CD/DVD storage containers that look like mummy cases. It’s $162.50 for a 2-foot-tall one, $325 for one that’s 4 feet. By the time you read this, perhaps the shop’s one $925 Sarcophagus model – 6 feet tall – already will be sold.

I’m torn about whether these odd souvenirs are amusing or disturbing. What’s the message? Are we to be merely entertained, or develop a sense of reverence, as we absorb “Quest for Immortality”?

It’s reminded me of the inflatable rafts that were a part of the stash for sale when the “Titanic” exhibit hit the road a few years ago. I can see the dark humor, but not the charm.