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Tut’s Here: So What Do We Think?

by Stephen Becker 3 Oct 2008 6:52 AM

Following Wednesday’s press preview of “Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs,” the Art&Seek bloggers participated in an e-mail round-table discussion on all things Tut: JEROME WEEKS: Setting aside, for the moment, the content of “Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs” at the DMA, what struck me immediately about the exhibition was […]


Following Wednesday’s press preview of “Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs,” the Art&Seek bloggers participated in an e-mail round-table discussion on all things Tut:

JEROME WEEKS: Setting aside, for the moment, the content of “Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs” at the DMA, what struck me immediately about the exhibition was its highly theatrical nature. That’s not intended as a criticism (not entirely). On recent visits to European museums, I’ve been struck by how some of them use much more technology than art or history museums in America seem comfortable using (or can afford to use) — TV displays, lasers, computer screens, digital re-enactments.

To give those readers who haven’t seen Tut some idea: The exhibition is basically split in two, with the first half devoted to Tutankhamun’s general period and immediate predecessors. It’s a mini-history of the 18th dynasty, so that visitors may understand better such things as Akhenaten’s revolutionary monotheism, his banishment of hundreds of the old gods for his new sun god (Aten), with whom he was identified. Akhenaten may have been Tut’s father or his older brother; the precise lineage is still a matter of dispute. In any event, Tut grew up under this revolution (it meant an overturning of the dominant priesthood), and then, for some mysterious reason, Tut turned around and restored the old gods, the old priestly caste.

That first half is presented more or less like a typical museum exhibition – brightly lit and open, although with the walls and information displays designed to evoke Egyptian temples, and there is an introductory film with voiceover by Omar Sharif. But then we turn a corner and seem to enter King Tut’s tomb. Everything that follows is deliberately sunk in blue-black darkness, the better to evoke the tomb itself and, I should add, the better to highlight the gold and jewels, which are given pinpoint illumination. Tut discoverer Howard Carter’s famous remark about seeing wonderful gold glinting in the darkness is prominently posted several times (actually, there’s some dispute about whether he ever uttered those words; his own diary entries do not contain them). The ceiling has giant wood beams across it, the mummy itself is not there but recreated with a large platform in the middle of one “chamber.”

And so on. It’s all very atmospheric. A little hokey, I thought, especially with the many projected paragraphs hyping the exciting moment of discovery. But still, it’s thrillingly effective.

BETSY LEWIS: I knew this would be a tech-heavy exhibition, but the objects are amazing, and oddly I was not prepared for that. Museum regulars may be put off by the spectacle and the parking issues, but once they finally enter that first gallery – wow. The colors, the detail and the remarkable preservation of these objects will dazzle the most aloof art history major.

I thought the multimedia touches added to it, but then I have an Apple logo on my windshield. Yes, it looks like Disney, but who doesn’t like Disney? High theatricality is only a bad thing when it is intertwined with one’s personality (but I know nothing about that).

J.W.: I wonder, though: For some visitors, paying as much as $32.50 to see the exhibition — will all that, plus the separate gold items that are on display and the CAT scans and video screens at the end, will all of it make up for the lack of the king’s famous funerary mask (the image used to sell the exhibition)? It’s not actually here (it’s not leaving Egypt; it’s too delicate). Neither are any of the huge, Chinese-box-like sarcophagi, the mummy itself or any truly large objects from the tomb. I wonder if they’ll see the tech splendor as insufficient compensation.

On the other hand, there are quite a few amazingly intricate, jeweled items (scarab necklaces, pectorals, bracelets and the like), a set of gold, nested fetus coffins (the first time they’ve left Egypt) and, to my mind, the most astonishing piece of work in the show, Queen Tiye’s massive gold sarcophagus. And Tiye wasn’t even official dynastic royalty, just some floozy Amenhotep married (a joke, she was Nefertiti’s cousin).

STEPHEN BECKER: At first, I also considered the price kind of steep. But after listening to Zahi Hawass speak Wednesday morning, my perspective changed a bit. Dr. Hawass, secretary general of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, spoke of how much of the proceeds from tickets sales will go back to Egypt to help care for these items and to build a mammoth museum to house them. And some of the proceeds that don’t go to Egypt are going to benefit the Dallas Museum of Art. So in a way, I kinda feel like the ticket price is almost a charitable donation, with the proceeds going to benefit two worthwhile causes (of course, that’s easy for me to say as I got to see it free at the press preview). To date, 125,000 tickets have been sold. If for argument’s sake we can assume an average ticket price of about $25 (the highest adult ticket is $32.50 and kids are $16.50), that’s more $3 million this thing has already generated. It’s unclear who is getting what cut of the pie (reports are that the Egyptian government is getting paid first), but it seems to reason that a lot of good can be done with that money on both sides of the Atlantic.

J.W.: Well, we can go on at length on the financial issues. Dr. Hawass made a persuasive case for the need for Egypt to use what it can to raise money to rectify all this. Practically the entire country is a historic landmark, so the matter is huge.

I wonder more about the cut for AEG, Arts and Exhibitions International – the “sports and entertainment” conglomerate that put this tour together (as well as Diana: A Celebration” and Celine Dion’s Vegas show). And the cut for downtown Dallas. During the press preview, the presentation by the featured speakers insistently turned to money and tourism.

Bonnie Pitman did extol the museum’s different efforts, Dr. Hawass spoke about how important these works are for Egypt and one speaker from Northern Trust (sincerely, it seemed to me) did express the hope that schoolchildren would see Tut. But overwhelmingly, the self-congratulatory talk was about how the business community leveraged a non-profit into playing ball and helping the city snag some hefty hotel and restaurant revenue. Perhaps the gathered speakers knew this kind of business talk would play well with the Dallas public or at least with the well-heeled people at the preview, I don’t know. But they made it seem as though they brought Tut here mostly so the money wouldn’t go to Houston.

The argument was also made that the exhibition was an ingenious way to introduce a million visitors to the new Arts District. This seemed unconvincing, an argument that was cooked up after the exhibition was already set: The DCPA won’t be open until late next year – meaning all those out-of-towners will be introduced to a marvelous construction site and a huge headache finding parking. As a result of all this, too much of the presentation felt just a bit money-minded to me. Considering the beauties and the (previous) success of the exhibition, it seemed odd, for instance, that David Silverman, the show’s national curator, didn’t speak. If the press wanted to, we had to hunt him down afterward. Ditto the DMA’s own antiquities curator, Dr. Anne Bromberg, whom I was fortunate to hear discourse on Queen Tiya’s sarcophagus. But maybe that’s just me, the perennial student. I wanted to know more about these works (and why these works, not others that could have come); I didn’t need to be sold on the exhibition’s cash value. I mentally contrasted all this with the casual but fascinating and informative walk-through presented by the Kimbell for its blockbuster Impressionist show.

I must add, however, that there are quite a number of lectures and public talks scheduled at the DMA.

S.B.: Jerome – I agree with you that the timing of all of this does seem off by about six months to a year. Phillip Jones, president of the Dallas Convention and Visitors Bureau, says in one of the press handouts, “From new mixed-use urban developments like Victory Park, to the new face of the Arts District, if you haven’t seen Dallas in a few years, you haven’t seen Dallas.”

While I realize that he’s just doing his job in selling the city, it does seem unfortunate that, if Tut is supposed to serve as this huge advertisement for Dallas, the stuff that it should be drawing attention to (namely, the Arts District) isn’t really going to be ready for its close-up until after the Boy King has left town. And all this effort to try and shoehorn Victory Park into everything feels strained at best – frankly, I can’t see what it has to do with anything. Plus, the events that take place there (anything at the AAC, AFI-Dallas stuff) already serve as worthy attention-getters.

One thing I failed to mention in my earlier post about the fancy new museum being built in Egypt: On Saturday at 3 p.m., the DMA will host a lecture by Ali Radwan, a member of the board of trustees of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities and Mohamed Ghoniem, executive director of the Grand Museum. So if you want to hear more about the museum that a portion of your ticket purchases are going to fund, that would seem like the time to do it.

A final thought to that end: I’ve been thinking about how Egypt seems to be the master of actually exporting tourism. That would seem counter-intuitive – the whole point of tourism is to get people to come to your place. But Egypt seems to have recognized that the perception that the Middle East is an unsafe place is a tough one to overcome. At the same time, there’s no point in letting all of this money-making material go to waste. So sending it out on the road makes sense in a way that, say, sending the British crown jewels does not. And who knows — it’s perfectly plausible that someone could take in the exhibit and decide to take a trip the land of the pyramids to learn more.

Photo credit: The Dallas Museum of Art