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Tut, Tut?
by Jerome Weeks 14 Jul 2008

The Dallas Morning News‘ coverage of the King Tut exhibition, coming to the Dallas Museum of Art in October, has been marked by a strong note of cheerleading — notably the breathless excitement when the exhibition was first announced. How often does a cultural event merit Mayor Tom Leppert’s personal involvement? (And I should add, […]


The Dallas Morning News‘ coverage of the King Tut exhibition, coming to the Dallas Museum of Art in October, has been marked by a strong note of cheerleading — notably the breathless excitement when the exhibition was first announced. How often does a cultural event merit Mayor Tom Leppert’s personal involvement? (And I should add, the personal involvement of former Mayor Laura Miller and council member Angela Hunt and a host of other city dignitaries in originally sealing the deal)?

But Michael Granberry’s thorough front-page story in yesterday’s News laid out the case for the exhibition — as well as the doubts and questions that many professionals and critics in the museum world have been raising about the for-profit venture. Understandably, many people see the benefits of the Tut show as fairly obvious: What’s wrong with a museum bringing in a popular show, working with a corporation to turn a little profit?

It’s hard to argue against the numbers that Tut can draw — 1.3 million in Philadelphia alone, for instance. Perhaps it’s worth noting, though, that those numbers were at the Franklin Institute, which is a science and nature museum, complete with an IMAX theater, soon to show the Batman movie, The Dark Knight.

But let’s set aside the mission of non-profit arts organizations — we don’t tax them because they do the hard, non-commercial things that we believe will benefit the community, works involving scholarship and education and bringing in rare objects and shows for our enlightenment. If we set aside all that — a big step — we’re still struck by one of the surprises in Granberry’s story: the statement by DMA director Bonnie Pitman that she expects the museum will only break even on Tut. That means, not surprisingly, the lion’s share of revenue from all the hooplah and special events, all the trinkets and books sold, will go straight back to AEG Exhibitions, the parent company.

But that also means, despite what cynics might immediately conclude, profit wasn’t the motivation for the DMA.

So the debate would seem to be this: Are the other benefits that supposedly accrue to the DMA — vastly increased traffic, the introduction of thousands of new visitors to the museum — are they worth it? Does a museum in such a situation risk anything — in reputation, in stepping on a slope leading away from its core mission as a non-profit?

  • Bill M.

    I saw the first Tut show. It was spectacular, in that museum-blockblustery sort of way. But I found myself wondering as we pressed through, acoustiguides glued to our ears just how much we were learning about Egypt and its civilization. How many of those gazillion visitors would actually read the catalog? Tut was a marginal figure, the Boy King who wouldn’t have been more than a footnote in Egyptian history if looters had discovered his tomb and emptied it before the explorers got there. What were we actually looking at?
    I’ve never seen a museum survey that shows how many of those first-time visitors to a Tut-like show ever return for other, less spectacular, exhibits. I suspect those who do are disappointed, because without all the ballyhoo and flackery, after the dramatic lighting and music and other stagecraft is packed up and shipped on to the next venue, there’s just…all that art hanging there on the walls.
    Beyond some false impressions about art and history, I don’t suppose Tut will do much lasting harm to DMA or the city. And there’s gold to be displayed, and to be made — by someone.

  • Rawlins Gilliland

    Tut has before …and will again prove to be… in a class by itself by any conventional venue measure. I recall in 1977 driving to New Orleans to see him (including this pictured mask which will NOT leave Cairo ever again it is said…to fragile, too costly, not cost effective to the Cairo Museum losing revenue when it is traveling.)

    But yes, even if there is no ‘profit’ when the gold dust settles, there will be tens of thousands of people who have never been to the DMA. And knowledge of the museum is power compared to those who have no idea even where it is prior. There is no way this is anything but a great event……. and the dividends will benefit everything from Fearing’s to the Nasher to NorthPark to Mi Cocina. Jerry Jones should be so lucky. (Or, should I say, Arlington tax payers.)

    • I agree with Bill on this one — I know, the earth trembles in shock. I saw “Ramses the Great” in Dallas in the early ’80s, and found the experience borderline maddening with all the crowds preventing any decent, lengthy view of the displays, plus the giant banners and all the merchandise getting peddled everywhere. And believe me, some of the photo-op stunts and kitsch that surround Tut this time will make Ramses look modest. To give some idea of the marketing money involved: The Dallas Convention and Visitors’ Bureau is putting up $2 million for promoting the event — beyond what AEG Entertainment will already spend on its own. And neither the mayor nor the DMA has publicly discussed just how much the Tut stay will be costing overall.

      Even so, my real question, coming away from Ramses years ago, was — was any of this worth it for the museum involved? Not for the city’s commercial ventures — all the hotels and restaurants and what-not that will happily feed off Tut for seven months — but for the non-profit institution itself. And does that “benefit” mean anything more than “people in the door”? Is that how we measure an art museum’s success, with Super Bowl numbers?

      Back to Bill’s point: Recall that Ramses came to Fair Park, to the Science Museum — did that organization’s fortunes change directly because of the blockbuster exhibit? Are there stats that measure this effect, beyond simply increased sales at the museum gift shop? Remember — most of that money goes straight back to AEG with the museum seeing little of it. There has been a lengthy debate among museum professionals and critics about the positive and negative effects of blockbusters, effects that often are not figured into the public numbers. The strain on the museum’s staff, for instance, which is dragged away from other worthy projects or the question of non-profits anteing up in advance for these exhibitions, which makes them less education and scholarly and more a hired, fundraising spectacle (see, for example, http://www.aam-us.org/pubs/mn/MN_ND05_MktgKingTut.cfm).

  • Christine

    Museums should seek a balance between populism and academia, education and entertainment. I think many museums are doing a fine job of walking these lines, especially between entertainment and education. Whoever said that education can’t also be fun and entertaining? One might conclude that, based on both common sense and some recent free-choice learning research, the general public even learns more when an exhibition contains populist elements, especially when compared to inaccessible, stuffy, academic exhibitions that put the average Joe to sleep.

    In my opinion, the real danger occurs when exhibitions do not pose questions, do not produce true scholarship, and only require passive looking, rather than active thinking. I think the culture and customs of ancient Egypt are perpetually intriguing and challenging to contemporary humans. But it’s up to the DMA to ensure that visitors are not simply gawking, but are actually considering the art and ideas of ancient Egypt.

    I was way more disappointed to see that the Kimbell is featuring yet another Impressionist exhibition. There is nothing wrong with museums featuring popular shows to make money, but at least vary up the blockbuster exhibitions. Enough, already, with the Impressionists! I suppose it’s easy to pack in the suburbanites, charge them $20 to see pretty pictures they don’t have to actually think about, and call it a day…but that doesn’t mean they should do the same show every six months.

    Back in the day, before the Impressionist overdose, I highly respected the Kimbell. And they still have some really interesting exhibitions, but I find those exhibitions are really diluted by their over-dedication to the Impressionists. It’s like I have less respect for the academic reputation of the institution because of it. I’m half-afraid they’re going to announce an exhibition of Thomas Kinkade…doesn’t he paint light, too?

    • Hillary

      Kool pics very helpful

  • Bill M.

    “…especially when compared to inaccessible, stuffy, academic exhibitions that put the average Joe to sleep.”
    I’m thinking about recent exhibits: Which ones fall into this category?