[City Beat] Faded Glory 

Are cultural exhibitions history?

Item from The Clarion-Ledger, the daily newspaper in Jackson, Mississippi: The "Dresden" exhibition could wind up with a $1 million deficit and spell the end of future projects.

What, you might ask, is the "Dresden" exhibition and what relevance does it have to Memphis?

The "Dresden" exhibition -- the full name is "The Glory of Baroque Dresden" -- is Jackson's answer to the Wonders series at The Pyramid, now showing "Masters of Florence: Glory & Genius at the Court of the Medici," which, as we shall see, is facing its own problems. The pride of Jackson includes jewels and cultural treasures from Dresden, Germany, and has nothing to do with the firebombing of that city during World War II.

Memphis was the inspiration for the Jackson exhibition and similar ones in other cities, having spawned both the general idea and the apostles to carry it forward 15 years ago.

The mother of all modern American cultural exhibitions was "The Treasures of King Tut." In the late 1970s, a time of less media clutter, "King Tut" captured the imagination of the media and public in a big way. "King Tut" begat lots of children. In 1987, Memphis was early on the bandwagon, pulling together an Egyptian exhibit called "Ramesses the Great." It was also a big hit. Four years later, the Wonders series of cultural exhibitions was formed and kicked off with "Catherine the Great," followed by "Napoleon" and "Titanic," among others.

Dick Hackett, the current director of Wonders, was mayor of Memphis when "Ramesses" and "Catherine" came to town. Two of his aides, Jim Broughton and Jack Kyle, noticed how "world-class culture" could bring some sizzle to tourist-hungry towns, and they took the idea to St. Petersburg, Florida, and Jackson. Kyle is now executive director of the Mississippi Commission for International Cultural Exchange in Jackson. He recently warned that "there's no way we can sustain having these with lack of support from the Jackson metro area."

If you haven't seen "Dresden" or the "Medici," go if you like, but spare yourself a guilt trip if you don't.

High culture had a pretty good run, but now appears to be going the way of Toys R Us, the Harlem Globetrotters, Disney on Ice, the circus, Friends, Seinfeld, and -- judging by all the empty seats -- the Olympics. The grand idea has run its course, the public is getting bored, sponsors are getting soaked, and the appeal of the exhibitions is declining.

There is less of a "wow" factor and a scarcity of blockbusters. Next year's Memphis offering in the Wonders series will be an exhibition of motorcycles. Cool, if you're into motorcycles, but of limited appeal otherwise, and some bike buffs may already have seen it at the Guggenheim Museum in New York where it opened. One of the attributes of being a cosmopolitan city, after all, is that people get on airplanes and read out-of-town newspapers.

Hackett told me last week the "Medici" exhibition, which got good critical reviews in Birmingham and Little Rock, is about 75,000 visitors below projections, at $15 a ticket. He's hoping attendance will improve when school groups come back next month. He says people aren't traveling like they used to, but I wonder if they're just traveling somewhere else.

The glories of this or that culture are fighting for attention in a crowded field. When "Ramesses" was king, there were no casinos in Tunica, no NBA team in Memphis, no FedExForum, no AutoZone Park, no Cannon Center for the Performing Arts, no suburban performing arts centers in Germantown, Bartlett, and DeSoto County. Now the greater Memphis area is crammed with entertainment venues, many of them starving for big crowds. It's self-serving for promoters to blame locals for failing to support something that is on its fourth installment in eight years in Jackson -- and pays the promoter's salary. To their credit, the Wonders folks have not played the blame game.

Culture isn't the only casualty. The same thing is happening in music and the blues in particular. Cities in the Mississippi Delta from Greenville to Leland to Clarksdale to Itta Bena to Helena now have a blues festival and museum. Memphis, of course, has at least five music museums or music-related attractions.

The Civil War fad, revived with the Ken Burns PBS documentary back in 1991, seems to be running out of gas as well. Last weekend, I visited the new $9 million Civil War Interpretive Center in Corinth, Mississippi. It's a commendable multimedia attempt to get away from cannonballs and muskets under glass, but it's a struggle. History as something that you can package and sell to visitors may itself be history. n


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