Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaoh




Ancient Egypt, with its more than 3000 year history of pharaohs, pyramids, and mummies having all unfolded before the Christian era, has always had a fascinating allure, at once historical, biblical, and mystical. And so, I, like thousands of others, was attracted to the latest Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) extravaganza – a traveling exhibit called Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs, on display from June 16th to November 11th.

In its first month the show has been a sell out. Crowds are guided into a special pavilion across the street from the main LACMA buildings. Shoulder-to-shoulder, we were funneled past faux Egyptian pillars to a small theatre to listen to a brief teaser about the exhibit before moving on to view the collection.

King Tut was actually a minor Pharaoh as history goes – having reigned for less than ten years, dying in 1325 BC at the age of 19 under unknown circumstances. Tutankhamun’s tomb was discovered by English archeologist Howard Carter in November 1922 in the Valley of the Kings in Luxor, Egypt. Tut’s fame arose because his tomb was virtually the only one found intact, with its golden treasures undisturbed by grave robbers for 3300 years.       LACMA’s exhibit displays 50 items from Tut’s tomb and another 70-80 from other tombs in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings. Among the Tut artifacts are the royal diadem or golden crown found atop the mummy’s head, his royal scepter and flail, small golden coffins that held the pharaoh’s mummified internal organs, and ornate statuettes called shabti that followed the king into the afterlife to assist his needs. The audio tour is narrated by, of course, Omar Sharif.   

While I enjoyed the exhibit, my overall impression was that there was too much toot and not enough Tut – lots of hype for an exhibit was that was just mediocre. I searched the web and reviewed the exhibits on King Tut at the world’s best museum of Egyptology – the Egyptian Museum in Cairo – which loaned the items to the U.S. for this traveling museum show. They loaned perhaps 20% of their Tut artifacts – but the best of the collection including the boy king’s golden death mask and the multiple golden coffins and sarcophagi remained behind.

Tickets for the Los Angeles Tutankhamen exhibit are pricey – a $30 admission fee. And, the exhibit is not really a LACMA project. They turned over their curatorial powers to AEG, the world’s second largest promoter of rock concerts, who are experts at hyping big events for big ticket prices. AEG paid the Egyptian government five million dollars to “rent and display” the treasures and share revenue with LACMA, which has merely provided their good name and the exhibit hall. Clearly both AEG and LACMA hope Tutankhamun will be a golden cash cow. Art museums have generally existed to expose the general public to great art for free or for modest admission prices. But in Tut’s case, they have subordinated that noble purpose to less noble profit motives.

I have to admit however that I have been somewhat spoiled. While the Tutankhamun traveling show is certainly interesting and well displayed, it doesn’t compare to the grand collections of Egyptian art held by other great museums around the world. However, if you’re curious about pharaoh’s and mummies and gold filled tombs, and don’t plan on long distance travel to view the magnificent Egyptian antiquity collections in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, the Louvre in Paris, the British Museum in London, or the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, you may want to consider paying the rock concert fees for LACMA’s Tut.

Howard Carter’s discovery became a media sensation in the early 20th century. Probably in an effort to sell more newspapers, stories quickly appeared about “the mummy’s curse” and that anyone who disturbed the tomb of the pharaoh would suffer dire consequences. On the day Tut’s tomb was opened, Howard Carter’s pet canary was swallowed by a cobra. The rearing cobra, whose image is prominently displayed on the crown of the king, represents the goddess Wadjet, the protector of the Pharaoh ready to strike and kill his enemies. Lord Carnarvon, Carter’s financial sponsor, who entered the tomb with him, died just months after the discovery. Arthur Conan Doyle, the famous author of Sherlock Holmes and a believer in the occult, promptly announced that Lord Carnarvon’s death was the result of the “pharaoh’s curse.” And then more hype began, with newspapers announcing the death of one after another of those who had defiled the pharaoh’s tomb. Of course the list was bogus. Of 26 people who entered King Tut’s tomb in 1922, only six died in the first decade after, and most, including Carter, lived into old age. Rather than being a curse, Tut’s mummy has been a blessing for writers, filmmakers, and now museums.

It is estimated that one million people will see the Tut exhibit at LACMA and millions more as the show travels next to the Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale, the Field Museum in Chicago, and the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. Based on those projections, Tut on tour is destined to earn more in the coming year than the Rolling Stones on tour. When the entrepreneurs who put on Jagger’s shows realize how much money is be made, I’m sure they’ll think about mummifying Mick.

If you’re not worried about the curse or turned off by price, consider a day gaping at what the Pharaoh’s left behind – 1-877-TUT-TKTS.