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Audience with the boy king

Blockbuster-style packaging competes with the artifacts at the latest Tut exhibition.

June 17, 2005|David Pagel | Special to The Times

Movie studios have been doing it for decades: churning out sequels that few folks like as much as the original but mobs flock to anyway. This phenomenon took off when independent studios were taken over by multinational conglomerates. With corporate boards minding the profit margins, minimizing investment risk became standard operating procedure.

Now museums are getting in on the act. "Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs," which opened Thursday at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, is the sequel to "Treasures of Tutankhamen," a 1976 exhibition whose three-year U.S. tour set attendance records and gave birth to the era of museum blockbusters. Since then, many museums have begun to function less like scholarly enclaves or intellectual pleasure domes than entertainment centers.

Lavishly installed in a labyrinth of galleries on the ground floor of LACMA West, Tut II resembles a high-end theme park. Ticket booths have been moved outdoors, into tents pitched on the large lawn behind the museum. The grandly theatrical entrance to the exhibition owes more to Disneyland, Las Vegas and the mall at Hollywood and Highland than it does to traditional exhibition design.

Crowd control is a priority. So is making the line of viewers waiting to enter the show -- and to see the next precious object -- look shorter than it actually is.

Before a visitor glimpses a single artifact from ancient Egypt, he must proceed down a long corridor lined with eight faux columns and billboard-size reproductions of Egyptian imagery, make a 180-degree turn, walk back nearly the same distance and pass through a plaster-coated archway into a dark chamber lighted by small sconces. After allowing your eyes to adjust, you turn to the left and peer down a long, narrow gallery that's even darker, its walls painted pitch black and no exit visible at its opposite end.

There, brilliantly illuminated by spotlights, hovers King Tut's torso, like an apparition or mirage. Carved from wood and painted in unmodulated blocks of gold, brown and pale yellow, the life-size statue of the doe-eyed boy who became king before he was 10 and died around his 20th birthday looks approachable. His full lips, plump cheeks and arched eyebrows convey friendliness and contentment. The grain of the 3,300-year-old wood, visible through the faded paint, emphasizes the vulnerability of the sculpture and the mortality of the young man. It sets the tone for the show, which is personal and aimed at appealing to schoolkids, who will be trucked in by the busload, and tourists, who will pay up to $30 for the overproduced spectacle.

Visitors exit this shrine-like setting via two nearly hidden passageways behind the sculpture, where the exhibition proper begins in a bright, evenly lighted gallery that features eight pieces, modest busts and small figures carved from wood, granite, obsidian, calcite and quartzite. All portray Tut's ancestors. Informative labels trace the minor king's likely genealogy, which the objects vividly illustrate.

To enhance the mood, the gallery has been dressed up with a digitally printed mural of a desert landscape, walls fabricated to resemble the stonework of pyramids, a crumbing prop of a pillar, raw wood lathing hung overhead and, underfoot, thick springy carpeting manufactured to resemble woven straw matting. If Steve Wynn, who brought modern masterpieces to the art gallery at the Bellagio, had been running the Luxor, this is how he might have decorated the high-roller rooms.

In the museum, visitors proceed through a sequence of galleries that alternate between light and dark. Spotlighted objects look more important. The darkness is also intended to make you feel you're alone with the loot, or at least not packed in a crowded room. Sometimes, there's no art at all, just wall labels, maps and photographs. Such enforced pauses are meant to intensify the drama of the objects that follow. One narrow room with oddly angled walls and rough concrete floor is supposed to convey to modern viewers the desert atmosphere in which British archeologist Howard Carter discovered Tut's tomb in 1922. It comes off as bad camp.

The approximately 114 objects in the exhibition -- nearly 50 from Tut's tomb, the rest from others' -- do not need such elaborate window-dressing. Nor are viewers well served by the exhibition's slick packaging of the fascinating, generally first-rate artifacts.

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