At Large  April 5, 2022  Anna Claire Mauney

Blockbuster King Tut Exhibitions and their Fascinating History

Photo by Flickr user tutincommon.

The Mask of Tutankhamun, c. 1323 BC. Egyptian Museum, Cairo.

King Tutankhamun—or King Tut—first entered the Western zeitgeist in 1922, when his tomb was opened by the British archaeologist Howard Carter and his financier the fifth Earl of Carnarvon. The near-perfect preservation of the tomb’s 5,398 artifacts fascinated the world. Ever since, the ancient pharaoh and the treasures he was buried with have played a central role in Western imaginations of the historical and exotic.

The most significant touring exhibition centered on the boy-king was The Treasures of Tutankhamun (1972–1981). Although other traveling exhibitions such as Tutankhamun Treasure (1961-67) had already occurred—and many others have since—no other exhibition has generated nearly as much attention and excitement.

This breakout touring show came about as part of a new series of diplomatic efforts between Egypt and Western countries, starting with the United Kingdom early on in the 70s. Via the creation of a banner exhibition, officials hoped primarily to change public perceptions of Egypt from war-torn to cultural mecca.

A few years after these talks with the UK, Egypt and the United States entered similar negotiations. Fascinatingly, these occurred during Nixon’s presidency, in 1974—right around the early stages of the Watergate investigations.

National Archives.

President and Mrs. Nixon with Mr. and Mrs. Anwar Sadat at the site of the great pyramids at Giza, 1974. From the Nixon White House Photographs.

Between the UK and US tours, The Treasures of Tutankh­amun was hosted by three museums across the then Soviet Union. And, after the US tour, the exhibition was sent to several locations in Germany and Canada.

Of course, the particulars of these tours changed from one country to the next. In the case of the US tours, the director of the National Gallery of Art in DC and the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art fought for the chance to lead organizational efforts. Thomas Hoving, of the Met, ultimately won out.

The Met’s curator of Egyptian art, along with Hoving and officials from the Cairo Museum, chose fifty-five items for the tour, including the King’s golden burial mask. The show was a major hit.

In 2015, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) published a reflection piece on the lasting impact of this tour on everything from local economies to museum practices. Special ticketing systems had to be devised and efforts made to prevent scalping. According to the feature, over the course of the US tour, “Visitors spent $100,000 a week (in 1976 dollars) on souvenirs” alone.

When the show came to the Met, it drew 1.27 million visitors—633,500 of them from out of town. In total, the US rendition of The Treasures of Tutankhamun attracted about 8 million visitors and raised $9 million for the Egyptian government to use in the renovation of cultural venues.

National Gallery of Art, Gallery Archives.

Actress Elizabeth Taylor and US Senator John Warner at Treasures of Tutankhamun (November 17, 1976–March 15, 1977).

As mentioned previously, several other touring exhibitions have occurred over the decades. One of note was Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs (originally entitled Tutankhamen: The Golden Hereafter). The show toured across Europe and the US from 2004 to 2011 and was considered special because it mostly featured objects that were not included in the 1970s tours.

Today, 100 years after the initial opening of Tutankhamun’s tomb, King Tut’s remains and the most fragile items of the collection no longer leave Egypt.

A few years ago, a touring exhibition billed as the final time any items from the King Tut collection would ever leave Egypt was scheduled to run from 2018 to 2021. Entitled Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh, the show featured 150 items. More than sixty of these had never been seen outside of Egypt. Unfortunately, because of the pandemic, the tour’s last two stops—in Boston, Massachusetts and Sydney, Australia—were canceled.

Currently, the King Tut collection is mostly located in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Officials plan to eventually move it to the Grand Egyptian Museum which, after several years of more pandemic-related delays, is finally scheduled to open in November 2022.

About the Author

Anna Claire Mauney

Anna Claire Mauney is the former managing editor for Art & Object. A writer and artist living in North Carolina, she is interested in illustration, the 18th-century, and viceregal South America. She is also the co-host of An Obsessive Nature, a podcast about writing and pop culture.

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