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The Return Of King Tut

Get ready for some of Egypt's most famous artifacts -- and the lectures, programs and stuff that come with them.

June 16, 2005|Diane Haithman | Times Staff Writer

The "Golden Age of the Pharaohs" is about to collide with the Golden Age of Marketing at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

King Tut's tomb relics last came to L.A. in 1978 in the landmark "Treasures of Tutankhamen" exhibition. It toured seven U.S. cities from 1976 to 1979, drawing 8 million visitors -- more than a million to the county museum alone.

That record is yet to be broken, but organizers of "Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs" -- kicking off a four-city tour today at LACMA -- predict that the '78 tally may soon be ancient history.

You just can't beat the brand name of Egypt's most famous Sarcopha-Guy. And those in the museum world acknowledge that ancient Egypt, mummies, coffins and the treasures of the tomb (along with dinosaurs and Impressionist painters) are always among their greatest hits.

Tut II is predicted to have the blockbuster appeal of a mummified dinosaur (one who paints like Van Gogh). Even so, backers of what looks to be the most expensive touring art exhibition ever brought to the United States have launched a carefully orchestrated marketing campaign to make sure the boy king wins a hearty welcome during his five-month L.A. stay.

To that end, the museum will offer lectures, including one from the secretary general of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities; books; special programs for kids; and, of course, gifts that range from the silly (an "official" candy of King Tut) to the sublime (i.e., so bad it's good: a Tut tissue box from which the hankie exits beneath the nostrils).

"I hate to say this, but it's very similar to how we would go market another entertainment event, like a major awards show or sporting event," says Tim Leiweke, president of AEG, the sports and entertainment presenter that developed Staples Center, among other venues, and is financing the exhibition.

So what accounts for the public fascination with Tut and all things pharaonic?

Egyptologists say the universal appeal of a king who died at 19 rests not in science but in mystery. Recent CT scans appear to have ruled out a theory that Tut may have been murdered, yet his death remains unexplained. (Images from the scans will be part of the new Tut exhibition, but the king's actual mummy will remain in Egypt.)

"We still don't know what killed Tut," says Carol A. Redmount, associate professor of Near Eastern studies and curator of Egyptian archeology at UC Berkeley. "Plus there's the 'body' thing in pop culture right now, the 'CSI effect.' You have a real body to go with the mystery, and it's lasted for 3,500 years."

Redmount says the enticing notion of buried treasure from tombs also plays into almost everyone's childhood fantasies. "There is this whole idea of fabulous wealth of a kind that for the most part we don't see in this day and age. It appeals to the little kid in all of us. Wouldn't it be cool to find that?"

Willeke Wendrich, associate professor of Egyptian archeology in the department of Near Eastern languages and cultures at UCLA, concurs that a big part of the attraction is the "mummy factor," based on the ancient Egyptian assumption that you can take it with you.

Death, in modern American society, is viewed differently than it was in ancient Egypt, where "a lot of effort in daily life was given to making sure that you had a proper afterlife," she says.

And because the treasures were buried, they are remarkably well preserved.

"The real nice stuff is what we find in the tombs," Wendrich added.

The new Tut exhibition marks the first time in 26 years that objects from the tomb of Tut will be seen outside Egypt. The show, which already has toured Switzerland and Germany, will stop in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Chicago and Philadelphia after Los Angeles. Shows in other cities abroad are being negotiated, for a tour that may run for up to five years, Leiweke says.

The show includes more objects this time around, 114, according to LACMA, which is about twice as many as in the first show, with about 12 pieces making a return visit. Roughly half of the exhibition is made up of items from 18th Dynasty (1555 to 1305 BC) tombs other than Tut's, which housed the remains of pharaohs Amenhotep II and Tuthmosis IV, as well as Tut's great-grand-mummy Tuyu and great-granddad Yuya. All of the objects are 3,000 to 3,500 years old.

"This time, not only is he bringing his treasures, he's bringing his family," says the exhibition's national curator, David Silverman, who also was a curator for the 1970s Tut show.

From a marketing perspective, more than the preferred spelling of the king's name has changed since Tutankhamun's first visit.

Chris Hansen, LACMA's senior vice president and chief marketing officer , says the museum community's holier-than-advertising attitude toward marketing seems to have changed over time: "I think museums as a category are less shy about it. We used to be a little bit like doctors and lawyers -- you're not supposed to do it, right?"

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