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Historic Exhibit A Magna Yawn, And A Costly One At That

A version of this story ran in The Virginian-Pilot on July 29, 2007.

Enough with culture. We're not worthy.

Next time Virginia Beach City Council members want to spend close to a million bucks to bring an important historical document to town, will someone stop them? Please.

Let's be honest. Most tourists would rather be at the beach. So would we.

This is all about the Magna Carta exhibition, of course.

The Beach's magna mistake.

Last year, officials giddily agreed to bring one of four copies of the nearly 800-year-old charter to town. Experts predicted that hordes of history buffs - 70,000 of 'em - would line up to view the vaunted vellum.

Didn't happen.

According to Pilot reporter Richard Quinn, the Magna Carta drew a measly 20,375 gawkers during its 81-day gig at the Contemporary Art Center of Virginia. (That's roughly the number of country music fans who will see Kenny Chesney's sold-out show Aug. 24 at the amphitheater.)

The art center's disappointed executive director, Cameron Kitchin, told me Friday that about 7,500 of the Magna Carta visitors were students.

About 40 percent of the remaining ticket holders were from out of town. If my math is right, only about 8,000 locals bothered to take a gander at the document that underpins modern democracy.

Shame on us. Now pass the Coppertone.

The so-called "great charter," signed by King John in 1215, guarantees the "rights of man."

In it, the king agreed not to be above the law and promised a variety of things for his subjects that lead to our principles of due process and speedy trials.

So why wasn't the arts center mobbed by lovers of freedom?

"We've been asking ourselves just that," Kitchin sighed. Kitchin says the anemic crowds can't be blamed on lack of advertising. The show got piles of publicity.

"We saw over 75 significant articles in mainstream publications," he said.

Most of us knew it was here. We didn't care. We didn't go. That includes me.

When I heard the Magna Carta was coming, I thought it was a splendid idea. Back then, the cost to taxpayers was estimated to be less than $500 grand.

As is so often the case, it's costing us more.

Maybe we don't care much about seeing old documents. We do care about politicians who seem to shrug at news that taxpayers may be on the hook for about $900,000 for a municipal miscalculation.

Like Councilman Jim Wood.

"I think, in the grand scheme of the overall budget, it is not a great deal of money," he said last week. "I think it's an important cultural attraction. I'm glad we had it."

Wrong, councilman.

Nine hundred thousand dollars is a lot of money for an exhibit of little interest to the public.

And this imperious attitude - that the sovereign, er, council, knows best - is the antithesis of what is embodied in the document that very few of us went to see.

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