All of a sudden we find ourselves in a wave of reminders about the Wonders series, the mid 1980s to 1990s set of cultural exhibits organized by Memphians that drew millions of Memphians and others.
The Ramesses icon outside The Pyramid that was on the move Monday, April 23, to the University of Memphis campus is the latest reminder. The replica of the centerpiece of the 1987 Ramesses the Great exhibit was an example of the one of a kind moments that made the exhibits special.
Elsewhere over the weekend, Titanic—the movie – returned to Memphis movie screens, this time in 3-D to mark the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the unsinkable ocean liner.
For much of the month there has been a lot on television about the Titanic, including a program that WKNO aired originally in 1997 to go with the Wonders exhibit on the Titanic. The exhibit was the same year the movie was originally released.
The exhibit featured items taken from the debris field. It was the most popular of the Wonders exhibits.
The program evoked a different kind of nostalgia — for a series that was always something special and something that was unique to Memphis even if it toured later in other cities.
The narrator of the then tape recorded tour of the Ramses exhibit was Charlton Heston, who also came to the opening of the exhibit.
As was his style, Heston did not come with an entourage or security. In fact, he showed up at the exhibit entrance by himself and stopped to talk for a few minutes with a certain reporter about the exhibit and his belief that this particular Ramesses was not the pharaoh who tangled with Moses. He emphasized it was just his belief for what it was worth – that of the cinematic Moses.
The University of Memphis curated the exhibit including the restoration of the Ramesses monolith that was the centerpiece of the exhibit. A special forklift had to be brought in to get the heavy pieces of the monument to the second floor of the Memphis Cook Convention Center.
The Memphis delegation to Egypt had found the monument in pieces on its side, mostly buried, with children playing atop the parts that were above ground.
The restored monument was allowed to be used to make a one-of mold to pour a replica — the one that had been outside The Pyramid for its 20-year life as an arena starting in 1991.
The Catherine The Great exhibit came to Memphis in 1991 as Russia was in transition. It left Leningrad and returned to the same place that had changed its name back to St. Petersburg.
The “grand inaugural ceremony” listed guests who were officials of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. A month before the items left Memphis there was the attempted coup that was the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union.
Memphis had already had some experience with the cycle of change in the Soviet Union. An earlier non-Wonders exhibit had been in Memphis earlier to mark the 70-year history of the USSR and nowhere in the exhibit was the likeness or name of Stalin mentioned – even in the exhibit’s timeline. I’ve still got one of the perestroika pamphlets handed out.
But enough wandering and back to Wonders.
The most exotic Wonders exhibits may also have drawn the sparsest attendance. But they were no less spectacular. The exhibit on the Ottoman Empire featured the Topkapi dagger as its centerpiece. It was the first exhibition of the dagger in the Western Hemisphere. The surroundings made it much more than a grouping of 275 objects. The surroundings provided context.
For the exhibit on Etruscan civilization, the settings were crucial to creating the environment for an exhibit that had fewer items than any of the others.
Because Wonders organized the first seven exhibits there were international ties created and forged for the agreements necessary to secure the rights to treasures like the Topkapi dagger and the carriage of Catherine the Great. The carriage used for the Russian empress’s grand coronation was restored specifically for the Memphis exhibition with help from Memphis donors.
The exhibits were a cultural high point and educational experience that were an invaluable part of the school field trip experience for a generation of Memphians.
They also spoke volumes about the talent that still exists in the city among a community of museum curators who continue to work on exhibits that come to the city’s permanent institutions of art and culture.