How ‘King Tut’ Exhibits Have Evolved Over the Past Fifty Years

About a week and a half ago, the Boston Sunday Globe featured this full-page ad in the Arts section.

The BeyondKingTut website touts the Boston opening this way.


Opens on July 8th at SoWa Power Station in Boston

Through nine distinct galleries, Beyond King Tut: The Immersive Experience unlocks the 3,300 year old story of King Tut in an evolution of immersive show experiences.

Journey to modern-day Egypt and see wonders of the ancient world like the Temple at Karnak and the Great Sphinx. Experience ancient history come to life and gaze at the Egyptian sun as it rises above the Pyramids of Giza, filling the sky with vivid color. Travel back in time 3,000 years to the 18th dynasty when King Tut ruled and gods like Ra and Anubis were worshiped by all.

Descend into King Tut’s tomb, 100 years since its historic discovery, and join King Tut in his quest for immortality. Experience all of this and more at Beyond King Tut: The Immersive Experience, a story over 3,000 years in the making.

By contrast, here’s a story just 45 years in the making. It was 1977, and there was Tutmania at Chicago’s Field Museum, as local PBS station WTTW detailed.

They waited in long lines (sometimes overnight) to enter the dimly lit corridors lined with ancient Egyptian artifacts. They emerged into a larger room holding the gold sarcophagus of the ruler who had died at age 19, King Tut. They exited through the gift shop, leaving the museum with scarves, tote bags, prints, and books emblazoned with his image. And if they had a little extra cash, they walked home with expensive replicas of what they’d just seen. It was Tutmania at the Field Museum in 1977 as The Treasures of King Tutankhamun (boy king of the New Kingdom in Egypt 3000 years earlier) came through town, breaking attendance records and adding millions of dollars to the city’s tourist trade. Nearly 1.3 million visitors attended during the four-month stop of the exhibit.

At the time, I happened to be in the midst of a return engagement to the Midwest, where I’d previously done seven years in Ohio. Six months earlier I’d “postponed” – from Boston –  my upcoming nuptials in Indianapolis with a phone call I providentially made the night before the wedding invitations were to go out in the mail.

The fiancée was understandably flummoxed; her posh parents were simply pissed.

Some months later I moved back to Cincinnati – a safe but reasonable distance from Indianapolis – in order to, as it were, settle all family business. But every time I called the flummoxed fiancée to schedule a time to get together, she would say “next weekend.”

Spoiler alert: Next weekend never came.

(I once went to a pub in London that had a brass plaque on the front door that said “Free Beer Tomorrow.” The ex-fiancée turned out to be free beer tomorrow.)

To while away the time not settling all family business, I did a ton of freelance writing for Cincinnati media outlets, including this piece for the Riverfront Times.

Fortunately, I was one of those 1.3 million visitors to the Treasures of Tutankhamun exhibit at the Field Museum, although I did not wait in a long line to “enter the dimly lit corridors lined with ancient Egyptian artifacts,” as WTTW described the scene.

Instead, upon my arrival at the museum, my two “pert and lovely companions” (as I described them at the time) walked me straight to the head of a very long line where we encountered, not surprisingly, a wave of righteous Midwestern indignation.

At the head of the stairs – we can feel the cool dimness within – a man right out of central Nebraska (tall & thin, with sandy hair and a supportive brace of children) challenges our passing arrogance.

“Wait  minute, there. Where are you going?” With puzzled smile and poised index finger, I rely on Stan Laurel: “We’re going to the Museum.”

“Now look. The line forms back there. Why aren’t you-in-the-line?” His children bundle tightly around him, making him very thick and powerful below the waist.

“We’re members,” I shot back as we scurried inside. (Actually, my pert and lovely companions were Field Museum members; I was not. But why get technical about it.)

Once inside, the exhibit made me acutely aware of how little background I had in arts and culture. Then again, I also had no background in music appreciation, but nonetheless had been a freelance critic at half a dozen New England music magazines for over two years.

So why not review the Tut exhibit?

The pieces in the Exhibit at the Field Museum are, with few exceptions, magnificent. The atmosphere is less so. In front of an ebony chair inlaid with ivory, two women steadfastly ignored the explanatory “Chair of His Majesty when a child,” and just rattled on, leaning back and squinting over the tops of their sparkling glasses. “Well, maybe he was …” Pause. “It probably …” Frown. “Well, you know, I’m sure he was ..”

“A midget,” I offer in passing. (According to local Egyptologist M.A. Ahlrichs, Tut was actually shorter after his death. However, efforts to verify her claim that his feet were cut off because the innermost coffin was too short have failed to bear fruit.)

Minutes later I am driven from my contemplation of a floral unguent vase – beautifully done: two pieces of alabaster weaving the lotus of Upper Egypt and the papyrus of Lower into an eternal bouquet – by the antics of children so obstreperous I can’t decide which one to step on first. O, to dash the waves of brushing and tripping and kicking kids that surge along my legs and ankles. Brutish young thugs, they are as welcome as a three-day diaper.

They drive me past the delicate triumph of a gold and lapis belt buckle … past a splendidly carved and curved ceremonial chair with the god of eternity resting on the back … past the gold shrine of Tutankhamun at ease with his Queen … past (reluctantly) an exquisite gold dagger and sheath …

At the Vulture Collar I make my stand. A magnificent gold collar, worked in sheer gold and inlaid with cornelian and glass paste, it is a masterpiece of two-dimensional art. But, even its sinister beauty is overshadowed by the Gold Mask. The mask of death. It is the centerpiece of the Exhibit, wondrously made in the exact likeness of the young king; it shimmers with powerful grace, captivates with the sheer dignity of its lines. Fifteen minutes of staring will not suffice. It would be worth traveling to Nebraska for a look at it.

Almost as tiresome, and long, would be a catalogue of the other pieces at the Exhibit. I fancied all the alabaster and was especially taken with the hooded eyes and long sweep of the Golden Serpent Netjerankh (“The Living God”). I did not touch any of the enlarged photographs on the walls, the way most of the kids were doing. I wonder what I missed.

The Treasures of Tutankhamun are magical, almost impossible, even as you gaze on them. The gap of three thousand dream-slow years is not easily bridged . . .

Luckily, Ms. Ahlrichs has provided us with an excellent summary. “I was very impressed,” she said, “with the naturalistic modeling of the work there . . . When you look at the religious art of the Gothic period 2500 years later . . . it makes you wonder.

“The people there, of course, were attracted to the gold.

“The gold. It’s so shiny”

That’s how I immersed myself in the fifty-something ancient Egyptian artifacts at the Field Museum. Beyond King Tut, by contrast, includes exactly zero artifacts, which goes to the heart of not only the way Tut exhibits have evolved, but how immersion itself has changed.

Previously, the experience was about viewing the objects; you went and engaged with the artworks on display. Now, the experience is about the viewer; you go and you’re on display. People rely on technology for immersion nowadays, where they used to rely on themselves.

And that change, lamentably, is beyond recall.

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