Before his tomb was unearthed in 1922, King Tutankhamun's main claim to historic fame was that he reversed the monotheistic religious reforms of his predecessor, Akhenaten of Amharna. Tut, who ruled Egypt from age 10 to 19, set things back to polytheism.
If you are like me, this historical tidbit will come as news. I entered "Tutankhamun: The Golden King and the Great Pharoahs" (at the Children's Museum of Indianapolis through Oct. 25) with a limited knowledge of Egyptian historyand by limited, I mean loose threads picked up from a handful of Mummy movies, the Bible, and a few too many productions of "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat."
What I did know about was the Tut phenomenonthe throngs of people pulled almost magnetically to previous blockbuster King Tut tours around the world. I had read, years ago, "Making the Mummies Dance" by former Metropolitan Museum of Art curator Thomas Hoving, who is credited by many as the man who changed the way museums do business by focusing on blockbuster exhibitions. Still, even years after Hoving's Met show, Tut still means big box office, with variations on that show drawing crowds around the world.
The current show, organized by National Geographic, Arts and Exhibitions International, and AEG Exhibitions, with cooperation from the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities, features more than 100 artifacts, drawn from Tut's tomb itself and other sites. And, as in other cities, it is likely to provoke rage in many critics, historians and art aficionados.
As with top TV shows, Broadway blockbusters, and top-40 songs, the snobbish question arises: Can something this popular be of real value? My answer after visiting the show is, of course.
Because when you get past all the politics (there's a lot associated with this show and with archeological shows in general), there remain the objects themselves: a wide array of glorious items in pristine condition. The gold of the Funeral Mask of Psusennes I shines ethereally. The colors of the Collar of Neferuptah are rich and vibrant.
There's also the rush of history they bringthe big-picture feeling of the sands of time slipping through our fingers. More powerful, for me, than the golden treasures was the Colossal Statue of Arkenaten, with its missing limbs and damaged torso seeming like the perfect metaphor for our attempts to hang onto history as the elements (and our baser instincts) wear it away.
The cinematic tone to the entryway and the star-appeal of Harrison Ford assisting with the audio narration (which I highly recommend using) both enhance and diminish the experience. At times, I yearned for the silence that must have met archeologist Howard Carter when, after years of searching, he first entered Tut's chamber of wonders. (For the record, I attended on a sparsely populated media day, before the ticketed crowds arrived. Your noise level will no doubt be higher.)
You'll probably leave with questions. I was curious about the lack of reference (unless I missed something) to the slaves who were so vital to the Pharoah's lifestyle. I didn't get much sense of Egyptian society at that time beyond the families of the Pharoahs. And I suspect there will be disappointment from some that there's no mummy and, what looks like a full-sized sarcophagus in the ads, is actually a Canopic Coffinette, built to house vital organs, not a full body.
Going in, I wondered if such a show would work in this venue. But housing it here turns out to be an enhancement. With its entryway dinosaurs, central water clock and constant sense of discovery, our Children's Museum is infused with optimism and a sense of impending discovery. Rather than trivializing the treasures, the context gives it a newfound freshness. To best enjoy your visit with Tut, I suggest entering with the patience of an adult and the sense of wonder of a child.
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