(The Associated Press)
Near the end of the exhibition is a bronze cast of Pope John Paul II's hand, made in 2002. More than 1 million people have touched the hand, reaching out symbolically to a man who touched the world.
"It's not uncommon to see people in tears here, or deep in meditation," said Jeffrey Wyatt, the executive producer of the exhibit, as he stood in front of the sculpture. "Even for schoolkids and other people, regardless of their religious affiliation, there's a feeling of respect."
The bronze hand is one of more than 330 artifacts on display, many of them from permanent collections of the Vatican museums and released only for the North America tour, which began in 2003, making stops in Houston, Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Cincinnati, San Diego, Montreal and San Antonio. The exhibit will be on view in Milwaukee through May 7 before returning to the Vatican.
The exhibit arrives at an opportune time for the cash-strapped museum. Last year, museum executives -- who have since departed -- came under fire after an audit revealed years of excessive spending and questionable bookkeeping that left the museum almost $29 million in debt.
The museum expects about 120,000 visitors during the exhibit's three-month run, which would be the museum's largest crowd since almost 180,000 people visited its four-month Egyptian exhibit in 2004, said Jan Nowak, the museum's director of marketing and communications.
But even a strong turnout won't be a magic bullet for the museum's ongoing financial woes, said museum president Dan Finley, who took over in August.
"This will be a wonderful addition to the museum's bottom line, but there will still be a ways to go," Finley said. He estimated the museum's share of revenue from the exhibit will be about $1 million after expenses.
The exhibit traces thousands of years of papal history but includes artifacts used as recently as several months ago. Wyatt said people who followed Pope Benedict XVI's inauguration after Pope John Paul II's death in 2005 will recognize some of the pieces.
For example, the display includes canisters that were used to produce the black smoke that first indicated that no successor had been selected and the white smoke that later heralded the inauguration of Joseph Ratzinger as the new pope.
The exhibit also features robes and headwear from popes dating back to the 1800s. Wyatt said countless artifacts from the papal treasuries were lost over the centuries to foreign invaders, so a number of the surviving relics date back only about 200 years.
But one of the oldest and most popular works is the Mandylion of Edessa, a faded face on linen in a frame of gold and jewels that dates back to the third to fifth century. The face is said to be that of Jesus, which would make it one of the oldest representations of Christ.
When the art exhibit stopped at the Cincinnati Museum Center in 2003-2004, the 185,000 people it drew made it "far and away the most highly attended exhibit ever to come to Cincinnati," said Charlie Howard, the museum's senior director for marketing.
Howard said one of the most popular pieces was a ceremonial hammer used until 1903 to verify a pope's death.
"It's a little golden hammer, and in the old days they'd tap it on the head of a deceased pope to make sure he was deceased. That artifact was really popular with the schoolkids," he said.
Additional pieces are of historical if not religious significance. There's a replica of the scaffolding Michelangelo used to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling, and gifts that dignitaries from Napoleon to the Dalai Lama bestowed upon popes.
The Rev. Steven Avella, an associate professor of history at Marquette University, expected that even non-Catholics would be fascinated by the exhibit.
"If you seriously study Western civilization, the office of the papacy has played a significant defining role in the evolution of culture," he said. "Just on the sheer intellectual curiosity level, people would be interested."