Big shows: Tut, Tut, and more Tut

The Pacific Science Center prepares for a major King Tut show this spring. It's the third time for Tut in Seattle, and it might be the last exhibit outside of Egypt for the foreseeable future.

Crosscut archive image.

Created specifically for the afterlife, these golden sandals still covered the feet of Tutankhamun when Howard Carter unwrapped the mummy.

The Pacific Science Center prepares for a major King Tut show this spring. It's the third time for Tut in Seattle, and it might be the last exhibit outside of Egypt for the foreseeable future.

"When Lord Carnarvon, unable to stand the suspense any longer, inquired anxiously, 'Can you see anything?' it was all I could do to get out the words, 'Yes, wonderful things.'" — Archaeologist Howard Carter

It seems that whenever Seattle needs a lift, or a facelift, we get some help from the Boy King of ancient Egypt, Tutankhamun. On May 24, just in time for the 50th anniversary summer of Seattle Center and the world's fair that created it, the Pacific Science Center will be opening "Tutankhamun: The Golden King and the Great Pharahos," a major touring Tut exhibit sponsored by National Geographic, and the biggest Seattle has seen since the blockbuster show in 1978.

Last week public tickets went on sale and the Science Center held a "hard hat" tour of the exhibit's preparations. Lights are being moved, the giant moon model is being draped. The final exhibit, mounted by Arts and Exhibitions International, will feature two "chambers"; one holding ancient Egyptian artifacts to provide context for Tut, and a second that feature treasures from Tut's tomb itself, all in a kind of sepulchral atmosphere.

The idea is to recreate the feeling of the discovery that archaeologist Howard Carter and his team made in 1922, when they dug their way down a forgotten stairway in Luxor, Egypt and chopped their way through barriers to discover one of the greatest archaeological hordes of all time. A discovery that, 90 years later, still resonates.

It might be a long while before the public can get another view of Tut's artifacts on this continent. Seattle is the last stop on a world tour. From here, the collection goes back to Egypt for a permanent, non-traveling exhibit in the new Grand Egyptian Museum in Giza, scheduled to open next year. You'll have to go to Egypt to see these treasures again.

That was how it was for us here in Seattle until our first, little-remembered Tut exhibit in 1962. During the world's fair, the Seattle Art Museum at Volunteer Park hosted a small one-month (Aug.) show of "Tutankhamen Treasures." It was part of a national tour put on by the Smithsonian and it featured 31 of the 2,000-some cataloged from his tomb, all artifacts with at least one duplicate. Egypt did not want to risk touring one-of-a-kind items at that time. Included was one of four small (15-1/2" tall) gold Tut coffins (technically, a canopic coffinette) that carried some of Tut's preserved innards. The Century 21 show was not a blockbuster: It was overwhelmed by competition from the space age fair. 

The big one everyone remembers was the grand "Treasures of Tutankhamun" that roosted in Seattle in 1978, a Tut exhibition that drew over 1.3 million visitors. Seattle's attendance matched or beat that in other Tut cities including New York, Los Angeles, Washington, DC, and New Orleans. It was again hosted by the Seattle Art Museum, this time at the old Flag Pavilion at Seattle Center. The show is often remembered for its long lines, souvenirs (everyone had a Tut poster or ash tray), and it still brings to mind Steve Martin's famous King Tut song which captured the national hoopla.

If the '62 Tut show had little impact during the fair, the second was a kind of second-coming for the fairgrounds 15 years later. Seattleites had voted bond money to fix up the center, and millions were spent to make it Tut-ready. The Space Needle planned to build its new Skyline level for the exhibit, but was delayed by the city council. Still, Needle and Center attendance figures during the Tut year were their biggest since the fair. The Needle featured a Tut menu and a "Tut Tut" cocktail. In 1978, there was no escape from Tut-mania. 

The exhibit was a boon for the Center and for SAM, which collected a windfall and saw a spike in membership and volunteers. (According to the Seattle Times, the museum had over 1,127 Tut volunteers, who were called schwabaty, a hieroglyphic term for "servants"). It was a huge boost to city tourism as well. One estimate put Tut attendees from outside the area at 700,000. It was also a local comeback for the man who coordinated it: Ewen Dingwall, who ran Century 21 and eventually took over running the Center. He came back to town to manage the Tut extravaganza.

No one is predicting that level of blockbuster this time around. When asked, the Science Center's Bryce Seidl refused to put a number on attendance that would indicated success. Who needs the pressure? During the '78 show, the Seattle Times ran an ongoing tally of visitors, just as it did during Century 21 itself. Still, everyone hopes for good attendance and better crowd management. This time around, visitors will buy timed tickets to help eliminate the long lines.

The show itself will feature over 100 objects, about half of them from Tut's tomb (a few were in the '62 show, none in the '78 exhibit, according to curator David Silverman, though a couple are similar, including a gilded leopard's head). The treasures include a colossal statue of Tut found in a funerary temple and the boy king's golden sandals. There will also be a gold coffinette like the one in '62.

The inclusion of other Egyptian treasures is a smart idea, because many are new and they help put Tut in his context. Tut is a minor exemplar of a civilization's greatness, thanks to the fact that his tomb was minimally disturbed for millennia. He is not the only Egyptian to have proved popular in the Northwest. Expo '86 in Vancouver featured a major Ramses II exhibit in a temple-like pavilion. It was also a huge hit.

While this Tut show has appeared in a variety of venues, it's good to look at it this time through the lens of science rather than art. A lot of science has been done since '78. The mummy's curse has been replaced by new data as an area of forensic fascination. In the last decade, previously unavailable high-tech tools have been applied to Tut and his extended family, whose mummies also have survived the centuries. For one thing, we have been able to see both the real face and the reconstructed face behind the mask.

Researchers have CT-scanned and DNA tested Tut with some interesting results. Tut, last king of the 18th Dynasty (born around 1343 BC), is definitely the son of the Pharaoh Akhenaten and his wife, who was Akhenaten's sister. Royal incest was not uncommon. Tut himself was married to his half-sister. The pair had two stillborn daughters whose bodies were preserved.

Tut became King at nine years of age and died around 19. Tests show the cause of death was most likely an infection from a broken left leg. Although his mummy is in his tomb in Egypt, a replica has been created using detailed CT scans and will be on display in the new exhibit. This edition of Tut will run until early January of 2013.

Seattle was enchanted with the Tut story long before his artifacts came to town. The Seattle Times reported the tomb's discovery in December, 1922, and ran a story — "special cable to The Seattle Times" — from Lord Carnarvon, Howard Carter's partner and sponsor, describing the find, under the headline "Millions Buried with Pharaoh."

The burial chamber was opened on February 16, 1923 and a day later the Times ran eyewitness accounts. One description, by H.V. Morton, gave a vivid picture of the dramatic scene:

"The lights of three powerful electric torches flickered like white moons in the pitch darkness, illuminating sections of the painted walls where the weird gods of Egypt were pictured tending the soul of the king on its journey to the shades. Although twenty persons were present, there was not a single sound in the dim tomb . . . Hearts beat fast as the excavator-in-chief was bidden to look at that which no human eye had seen for 3,000 years."

Within a week, a wealthy Seattleite cabled home that he had visited Tut's tomb. David Whitcomb, a major Seattle business figure in real estate and banking — the Times described him as a "Seattle Capitalist" — was on a world tour and was among the early visitors to the excavation. He said he was running into other Seattleites in Egypt as well.

The Whitcomb report was above another story announcing that Tut's tomb was being closed to tourists because sightseers were doing damage to the artifacts by rubbing against them while trying to get a good view. Further incursions, the story said, would be barred. The tourists' loss is our gain. The Tut artifacts are popular, protected, and headed for a new museum home. Seattle is about to be graced by Tut's treasure trove once more, but in the next 50 years, we will likely have to turn elsewhere for a Boy King boost.


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Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.