New York Tutankhamun Exhibit Deserves the Met, not Times Square, Says Zahi Hawass

The coffinette of King Tutankhamun. Image Credit - Andreas F Voegelin, Antikenmuseum Basel and Sammlung LudwigFor me, the press preview of the Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs exhibition, which opened in New York today, was a momentous event because I’ve never met Dr. Zahi Hawass before, and I got to look him in the eye and shake his hand and even ask him a question. I’ll come to all that in a minute.

The exhibition is impressive. I can’t deny that. There was a moment when I actually stopped dead in my tracks, mouth open (soon to be hustled out of the way by a pushy New York journo). This happened when I came upon a huge bust of Akhenaten, King Tut’s autocratic probable Dad, high, high atop a great slab of honeyed stone, lit with a powerful spotlight, his face astonishingly realistic, the lips curved, cruel, sensual. I felt like Shelley’s “traveler from an antique land” finding the ruined statue of King Ozymandias in the desert:

“…whose frown
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'”

Indeed, if you’re not careful, you’ll leave this exhibition more interested in Akhenaten than in King Tut. The Boy King’s story isn’t short on drama, of course. He ascended the throne at 9 years old, 3,300 years ago, and died, with mysterious abruptness, at 19. He was buried in the somewhat hastily prepared tomb initially designed for his much-older, non-royal advisor, Ay, who then took over the rule of Egypt and was, ironically enough, buried in the tomb originally begun for Tutankhamun.

Meet the (Probable) Parents

King Tut did plenty during his short reign, but much of it involved sorting out the megalomaniacal mess left by his father, Akhenaten, who made the rest of Ancient Egyptian rulers look positively shy and retiring. Akhenaten tried to force his people to abandon the traditional roster of gods, worshipping only one sun god, Aten, and moved the capital from Memphis (Thebes) to Amarna. He even messed with art, as the arresting bust shows, encouraging a new, much more realistic style that showed the human face with curves rather than straight lines.

All of this turned out to be a public relations disaster to say the least, and King Tut quickly restored public confidence in the divine right of kings in the third year of his reign by moving the capital back to Memphis and restoring a nice juicy pantheon of gods to worship, as well as changing his own name from Tutankhaten to Tutankhamun to demonstrate his respect for the god Amun rather than Aten. (Names, as I’m sure you know, had all the power of magical spells in Ancient Egypt. A traditional saying spelled out high across a wall in the vast interior of the exhibition warns that to speak the names of the dead is to bring them back to life.) All in all, King Tut was a populist way before he caused Tutmania in the 70s during the famous tour of treasures from his tomb that changed museum-going forever. But Daddy. I mean, wow. He was quite something.

Click the image to open a slideshow of some of the artefacts on the New York leg of the tour.

The Man Without the Golden Mask

In any case, this is really all about Tut, and the organizers hope it will bring a resurgence of the breathless enthusiasm about this most famous of Ancient Egypt’s kings that swept the nation 30 years ago. It may well do so, but that brings me to a crucial point. There’s a ton of fabulous stuff in this exhibition, but there are none of the golden coffins, or the iconic golden death mask that covered King Tut’s mummified head on display in the 70s tour.

Click To Watch Video
Tutankhamun’s Golden Death Mask (Shot in King Tut Virtual)
One of the most famous artefacts ever discovered in the history of Archaeology is without question The Golden Mask of King Tutankhamun. See it over at Heritage Key VX – the online, virtual experience!

Okay, if you read the small print, you find that the mask, in any case, has been declared a national treasure and is never to leave Egypt again. But the ads for the show and the posters outside – in fact, absolutely every piece of promotion for the show – feature, exclusively, an image that looks very much like that famous mask, and only those who have been to the exhibition or are true experts on King Tut treasures would notice that this is a big picture of a very small golden coffin made for viscera (this one held King Tut’s liver).

The exhibition that toured in the 70s most definitely included the mask, and several other headline treasures missing from here. While the exhibitors makes every effort to get you to “meet King Tut”, including showing an extraordinary replica of his mummified body, I can’t help feeling it would have been worth making a replica of some of the big-ticket items so that people got a real sense of the full scale of the grandeur of King Tut’s burial trappings. Instead, there’s a very impressive video running on the wall of the room most related to the actual tomb; an animated film stripping away the outer wooden boxes, then the golden sarcophogi, then the golden coffins, revealing the mask at last. But in the center of that room, there’s just a smooth plinth with a fuzzy image on it. Frankly, it feels like Elvis has left the building.

Does King Tut Exhibit Deserve the Met?

King Tut's Senet Game Board is one of the artefacts on tour.I can’t help wondering if this is why the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which hosted King Tut in 1979, declined this exhibition, and it ended up at this relatively new and somewhat less grown-up venue. Dr. Hawass certainly had some harsh things to say about the choice of venue. “I have to say, I am not happy to see Tutanhkamun next to 42nd Street and Times Square, because it’s very commercial,” he lamented at the press conference, on Wednesday.”I think King Tut deserves to be at the Metropolitan Museum. Priceless artefacts should be at the Met rather than in this hall.”

He went on to publicly press John Norman, president of Arts and Exhibitions International, which organized the exhibition along with National Geographic, for an answer to his disappointment. Norman, put on the spot, gave a rather rambling explanation about months of negotiation, 6 years back, with the Met’s then-director, Philippe de Montebello, that basically revolved around money. “We couldn’t make it work,” Norman finally said.

Indeed, the exhibition looked destined to skip the biggest US city entirely, until Norman got a call last year from the director of the Discovery Times Square Exposition, offering up the newly-opened 50,000 square-foot space for the Boy King. Promised climate-control and water-tight security, Norman and Hawass agreed, and they were able to expand the exhibition substantially, giving it a truly New York scale. It is, indeed, luxuriously laid out, with enough twists and turns to give you a sense of real discovery as you move through a maze of rooms, one more fascinating than the last. Don’t get me wrong, this is a thoroughly worthwhile exhibition, and it’s beautifully presented. It just avoids the central question – dude, where’s the mask? – and would have been much better off addressing it head on, as it were.

Dr Zahi Hawass Takes to the Stage

Dr. Hawass is certainly a flamboyant and entertaining speaker and, aside from thoroughly embarassing his colleagues with bringing up the business with the Met, stole the limelight by announcing that one of King Tut’s chariots was on its way from Egypt, traveling outside the country for the first time, to augment the exhibition in its last manifestation before returning (allegedly permanently) home. He also claimed that a substantial part of the family tree of King Tut would be worked out within a month thanks to DNA testing. Stay tuned for more on that.

Further, Dr. Hawass is not afraid of addressing the subject of money. Pectoral with solar/lunar emblems and scarab.  Kenneth Garrett/National GeographicThe exhibition is expensive ($27.50 for adults), he says, because half of the profits go towards the fabulous new museum – the Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM) – being built in Cairo to house King Tut’s tomb treasures and other wonders. And how can anyone complain, after all, he argues, when coffee at his hotel that morning cost $13 before tip?

So far, in the last four years, King Tut’s travels have raised $100 million for preserving Egypt’s heritage, and the organizers hope this stint in the Big Apple will attract 1.5 million visitors more, producing another $20 million for the Grand Egyptian Museum‘s coffers. In an exhibition dripping with gold, and all the symbolic gravitas it brings, and was meant to bring, the subject of money feels totally relevant, and even refreshing. However, you’ll see the show does its best when it is extracting the less countable currencies of awe and respect.

I asked Dr. Hawass, if someone could take away one piece of learning from this exhibition, what would it be? He said he hoped that people looking on this “brilliant art work” would understand that they were in the presence of a golden age when rulers exercised their power with “mait” (pron. “might”), a word for justice and truth, he said. (Mait was an Ancient Egyptian goddess.) “We have to learn how to rule the world this way,” he declared.

No small ambition, there. Indeed, there is much to mull over in this exhibition about power and the way it is exercised. One way or another, we still live in the shadow of these ancient cultures, where arrogance, pride, and self-regard seem to have been given absolute free rein. Don’t forget the symbols of power carried by King Tut in nearly every representation: not just a crook to show he was the shepherd of his people, but a flail too. Those of us who don’t know better would do well to note that this was an instrument for removing human skin while the owner was still very much alive. They’re still making rulers like this. The human appetite for power remains undiminished, its ravening scope controlled, often solely, by what the ordinary masses are prepared to put up with. King Tut knew that. It’s worth remembering it now.

Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharoahs runs at Discovery Times Square Exposition until 2nd January 2011. Click here for more details.