The Discovery of King Tut – An Exhibit Worthy of a Pharaoh
by Marilyn Lester
Arguably the most famous Egyptian in the annals of world history is the “boy king” Tutankhamun. Since the 1922 discovery of his tomb by Englishman Howard Carter, mystery, rumor and fascination with Tut have seemed never to diminish. The latest expression of “Tutmania” is the very large exhibition, The Discovery of King Tut, an elaborate, awe-inspiring display of many of the contents of Tut’s tomb, along with a detailed, extensive catalog of information about its history and eventual unearthing.
The concept of The Discovery of King Tut is to allow viewers to experience the history of Tut’s tomb. It’s a kind of “and you are there” presentation with semi-theatrical elements. The intention of the concept originators, Paul Heinen and Wulf Kohl, is to bring Tut vividly to life in a grand way. Under the scholarly direction of Dr. Wolfgang Wettengel, and through the exhibition design by Rainer Verbizh, this vision has been realized. The Discovery of King Tut has plenty to offer those with and without a knowledge of the Tut story. (There’s actually so much to absorb that more than one trip to the exhibition might be called for to fully digest the information and all the wonders on display.)
Tut was 19 when he died, probably from an infection (his exact cause of death – including the theory of assassination – has been one of those mysteries that have swirled around the pharaoh). Evidence shows that the king was buried hurriedly; the tomb is small for a pharaoh and was probably ultimately intended for one of his royal court. Nonetheless, the treasures of the tomb are extraordinary and the chance to view them closely is part of this exhibit’s allure.
Audio is an integral part of the presentation. Upon arriving at the threshold of the exhibit, the visitor first encounters an ante-chamber, if you will, with a standard museum approach to the material. Here visitors receive their audio sets and await the short introductory video to Tut and the exhibit. From there, the next phase of the experience is a set of three dioramas. Each is an exact re-creation of the three chambers of Tut’s tomb as discovered by Carter and his team. It has been history’s good fortune that Carter meticulously cataloged every item and its position in the tomb, backed up by photographer Harry Burton’s painstaking and equally thorough documentation of the discovery.
The remainder of The Discovery of King Tut is set up as it would be in a museum. There’s ample opportunity to linger and spend time with the many artifacts on display. The Discovery of King Tut does not represent that these artifacts are the originals. The over 1,000 pieces of the exhibit are reproductions of magnificent authenticity and craftsmanship. They range from the huge sarcophagi that encased the mummy (there were five of them, like a nesting Russian doll) to small pieces of exquisite jewelry. Since a pharaoh is buried with all of the goods he’ll need in the next life, all manner of personal, household and spiritual objects are represented. The mummy of the king, as well as those of his two stillborn children (who were buried with him) are also reproduced in exact detail. (In reality, 5,398 items were found in Tut’s tomb; it took Howard Carter about 10 years to catalog all of them.) Although the objects in The Discovery of King Tut are not the real thing, the sheer epic nature of reproducing them in such detail is breathtaking. Especially awing is the re-creation of the many gold elements of the exhibit, including the solid gold coffin containing the mummy and the exquisite death mask that has become an icon of the Tut discovery.
When Tutankhamun died in 1323 BC his successor obliterated almost all traces of the king and his reign. Except for one or two initial violations of it by tomb robbers, Tut lay largely forgotten and completely undisturbed for nearly 3,000 years – a miracle considering the wholesale thefts and desecrations of most of these ancient burials. The discovery of the tomb and the scholarship – and hoopla – that followed made Tutankhamun one of the most renowned kings in Egypt’s history. It’s fitting that The Discovery of King Tut pays homage to Carter’s dedicated work, and also to Carter’s partner George Herbert, his patron, the deep-pocketed Lord Carnarvon, and to photographer Harry Burton.
The Discovery of King Tut, through May 1, 2016 at
Premiere Exhibitions 5th Avenue (417 Fifth Avenue at 38th Street) www.tutnyc.com