I never saw the King Tut exhibition when it toured in the 1970s, even though it came to my hometown of Seattle. There was no end to the hype for the exhibition back then. There was that eminently hummable Steve Martin song, and the special issue of National Geographic, and T.V. specials, and Tut dolls, posters, paperweights, and halloween costumes. We even had a whole King Tut unit in class (though, unlike nearly every other class in the Seattle school district, we didn’t get to go on a field trip to the exhibition itself).
So this time around when I knew we’d be in L.A. during the new King Tut Exhibition at the LA County Museum of Art, I didn’t want to miss it. We reserved tickets online a couple months ago, and today was the lucky day when we’d get to see the exhibit. Was all that fuss back in the ’70s a bunch of pointless hype, or was it really as astonishing as it sounded?
I must say, there were indeed some astonishing artifacts at the exhibition. And King Tut scholarship has most definitely progressed from the fifth grade version I remember from 1979. The consensus back then was that Tut wasn’t a particularly important king because he had married in to the dynasty. Now the prevailing view seems to be that he was Akhenaton’s son, by a secondary wife, not Queen Nefertiti.
However, overall, the exhibit was unsatisfying. There was a lavish animation showing how all the sarcophagi fit together, but none of the sarcophagi themselves, or even the splendid death mask from the first exhibition were present at this exhibition. The giant image from the front of this year’s special National Geographic issue and the exhibition Web site suggests a spectacular sarcophagus:
But in fact, this is actually a close-up image from a miniature coffin used to store the young king’s embalmed liver. In person, it looked more like a prop from a Legoland pyramid than a king’s treasure.
And certainly, at an exhibition of this stature, crowds are expected, but there was no excuse for how closely the individual pieces were placed together. There were extended corridors with no exhibits at all, punctuated by tiny rooms crammed with artifacts. Since most of the visitors were clearly not experienced museumgoers, they hunched close to the exhibits, blocking the view for everyone else attending the exhibition. For some of the works displayed, the exhibit designers had wisely placed explanatory texts in two places, both above and below, so that more people could read at the same time, but when we reached the most crowded rooms, this measure was inexplicably abandoned.
I did learn a few new facts about ancient Egyptian art and culture, and I was especially impressed by the portion of the exhibit showing the artifacts from the tomb of Tut’s grandparents, Yuya and Tuyu, including a most spectacular sarcophagus and death mask. In fact, it would have more honest to advertise this show as an exhibit on Tut’s ancestors, with a bit of Tut sprinkled in, instead of going for the home-run hype of King Tut II. Such an exhibit would have admittedly attracted smaller crowds, but those who did attend would have been pleasantly surprised, instead of monumentally disappointed.