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Tut Talk December 11, 2006

Behind-the-scenes conversations about the Tutankhamun exhibition

[image] A calcite bust of Tutankhamun served as a lid for one of the four receptacles in the canopic chest that held coffinettes with the king's mummified organs. (Courtesy Franklin Institute)

In a few weeks, beginning in February, King Tut will debut at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. ARCHAEOLOGY's Tracy Spurrier spoke to Zahi Hawass, Secretary General of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, and curator David Silverman of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology about how the exhibition was brought together.

Zahi Hawass, Secretary General of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities

(Courtesy Zahi Hawass) [LARGER IMAGE]

How and why did you choose these particular artifacts out of the hundreds collected from the tomb? Why did you decide to include pieces from the 18th Dynasty before Tutankhamun?
We thought from the beginning that it's not good to send just Tutankhamun, because we want people to known about 18th Dynasty before his reign, so that they can understand the history. It is important to see him in his proper context, not just as a treasure. These pieces belonged to the ancestors of Tut. Some artifacts from Tut's tomb cannot travel, like the mask and the coffin, but these other pieces fit with the scenario of this exhibition and people can appreciate them.

Which object in the exhibition is your favorite and why?
First, I love the canopic chest of Tjuya. This is beautiful, covered with black and touches of gold. Nephthys and Isis are shown standing together, with the sign of Ra between them. Also, from King Tut's tomb, is the staff bearing the figure of Tutankhamun, standing as a child, wearing a kilt. I think his crown, with his face, is a masterpiece of art. People should look carefully at the features. The other piece I love is the fan, which was discovered with its plumes intact. The inscriptions of the king, showing him riding his chariot and hunting ostriches and bringing them back are wonderful. SEE PHOTO GALLERY

What do you hope people will gain from viewing the exhibition?
When people visit this exhibition, they can understand one important thing: they can know that when people like Egyptians ruled in peace and had a vision of ma'at--justice and truth--they were really able to build an empire. Each artifact can tell us about those great people, and can teach us about the golden age of Egypt, and about the Valley of the Kings. It can tell them how the discovery of King Tut was not the end of archaeology. The tomb of Tutankhamun was in a valley of mystery and secrets; and I believe that it has more secrets to reveal, after KV 63. If people can understand our history, and read it well, it can give us all a good future.

Has the recent cat scan of King Tut changed the way mummies are studied?
This is the first time in Egypt, in the world, that a royal Egyptian mummy was CT scanned. Non-royal mummies have been scanned before, but never a king. Before, there were different opinions about Tut's age and how he died. I can say that the CT scan gave us accurate information about age, diseases, health, cause of death, and an accurate picture, as it could take 1,700 image inside the mummy. The success of the Tut CT scan will encourage us to do more in the royal and non-royal mummies as part of the Egyptian Mummy Project that I am leading.

And will a permanent gallery focusing on the CAT scan (much like the one featured in the touring exhibition) be added to the King Tut galleries in the Cairo Museum or possibly in the new National Museum of Egyptian Civilization?)
In the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization, scheduled to open in 2008, most of the royal mummies will be exhibited, transferred here from the Egyptian Museum. Royal mummies will never be shown again for a thrill. They will be shown for education. In the new museum, each mummy will be followed by panels showing what the king did in his life, his history and family, and the results of a CT scan of his mummy. The mummies will not be in one room; crowded together. They will take a lot of space in the new museum, and will be shown from an educational point of view.

Why is King Tutankhamun so important to ancient Egyptian archaeology and history?
Because his tomb was found largely intact. It captured the hearts of not only archaeologists, but also of the common man. If you try to look at his name before the tomb was found, it was nothing. The discovery opened a new vision into the history of the 18th Dynasty, about the wealth of Egypt, foreign relations, and family relations. It especially made us wonder about the wealth of a tomb of someone who ruled longer that Tut--what would have been buried, for example, in the tomb of Ramesses II?

How is Egypt benefiting from the "Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs" touring exhibition?
This is the first time that Egypt has benefited from such a show. From this exhibition and the other, King Tut II, which will be in the U.S. two years from now, Egypt will receive $100 million. There will be no free meals anymore. Before, Egypt got nothing. Museums always say it is about education, not money. But is not only about education. We need money to build museums, carry out training, do site management, and to save our monuments. No one has helped us, apart from a few countries. King Tut is helping us to restore the monuments of Egypt in a scientific way.

Lastly, what is the schedule for the construction and opening of the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization?
We are building the rooms for conservation right now. We got $300 million as a loan from Japan, and we are choosing the company to oversee the administration of the project. In January, we will announce a competition for the construction contract. The architectural design has already been chosen from an international competition.

David Silverman, University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and national curator of "Tutankhamun and the Golden age of the Pharaohs"

(Courtesy David Silverman) [LARGER IMAGE]

How is the exhibit organized; by object, by theme, by chronology? Why did you choose this particular layout?
The storyline is dictated by the artifacts themselves and by how groups of objects relate to each other. Both thematic concepts and chronology are essential. In this way, the layout seems natural, the story flows, and the artifacts illustrate the story and the story explicates the artifacts. The idea is much the same as the way ancient Egyptian scenes are a vsiual clue to a story, while the accompanying texts explicate them. The scenes themselves, however, also serve as illustrations for the text.

About half the 130 objects in the show are from Tutanhkamun's tomb, while the other half are from earlier in the 18th Dynasty. What do these additional pieces tell us? Why should people learn about the 18th Dynasty prior to Tut?
Fifty artifacts belonged to Tut, and all but two came from his tomb. The remaining 80, most of which derive from the Valley of the Kings, come primarily from royal tombs, but some are from tombs of the elite, such as Yuya and Tjuya, the probable great-grand parents of Tut. These pieces represent about a century during the time of Egypt's empire, begun under Tuthmosis III, when Egypt was a superpower in the Near East. The artifacts supply a context in which one can best understand Tutankhamun, whose short, but important reign represents only 10 percent of the time period covered by the exhibition. Our first gallery of artifacts, devoted to his relatives, sets the familial context of Tut. Subsequent galleries include daily life in the period, traditional religion, death and burial. These set the stage for the introduction of Akhenaten and the first recorded instance of the belief in a single god. Tut's importance focuses on the fact that it was during his reign that the revolutionary religion of the Aten was deemphasized in favor of the traditional religion and especially belief in many gods with Amun Ra at the head. So, Tut can be thought of as a restorer of traditional beliefs.

Which object in the exhibition is your favorite and why?
My favorite piece is the wooden bust of Tut, since it is so striking. It shows the human side of Tut, and despite the absence of gold it is one of the pieces that captures the attention of all who see it.

The flashy gold of King Tut will draw people to the exhibit, but how do you build on that so it isn't just a display of fancy objects? Was it challenging to create an opulent, blockbuster exhibit aimed at captivating the general public while still achieving the educational potential of the pieces?
By arranging the artifacts in a way to tell a more involved, related, and developed story, the aspect of gold becomes a complement and an essential part of the story rather than the focus. The experience we aimed for is one that not only dazzles, but one that remains with the visitor long after he or she leaves. Information is provided on a multitude of levels, both explicitly and implicitly. All exhibits have their challenges, and since this one is appearing in four different institutions, with differing plans, the challenges are even greater.

You were also the national curator for the 1970s Tutankhamun tour. Do you think the current exhibition has had the same affect on the public as the previous one, which launched the Tutmania frenzy?
Since the earlier one was the first of its kind, it set the stage for all other blockbusters that followed. This time, however, I concentrated not only on the tomb and its discovery--as I did the first time around--but also on the family, the life and times, the religious revolution, and its aftermath. Based on the huge number of visitors this time around, interest is extremely high. The frenzy before was also based in part on the difficulty in getting tickets, but much of those problems have disappeared with the advent of timed tickets.

If King Tut had lived a long and healthy life, how might his burial have been different in terms of size, decoration, grave goods?
The tomb he would have been buried in would have been larger and all walls would have received decoration. As to the contents, it is hard to say. Since no other royal tomb of the New Kingdom survived as well as did Tut's, we do not know how the others were stocked. One could even suggest that Tut's tomb may have been stocked so well because it was small and did not have all of the texts and images a royal tomb ordinarily had.

How does being a curator for the touring Tutankhamun exhibition, which stays in each location for less than a year, compare to being the curator for a permanent installation at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology?
As national curator, I travel to the other destinations only when we ready the exhibition for its new installation. The exhibition has 130 artifacts, and an Egyptian curator remains for the duration at each location. In my curatorial position at Penn, I have responsibility for around 40,000 artifacts, deal with a large installation on two floors, the conservation of the collection, and the many in-house permanent exhibitions, temporary displays, and loans that we process.

How does the University of Pennsylvania's exhibition about the period before King Tut, called "Amarna: Ancient Egypt's Place in the Sun," complement the Tutankhamun exhibition?
The Amarna exhibit focuses on the ancient city of Akhetaten that Akhenaten built to honor Aten, his new sole deity. We use artifacts from excavations the museum supported early in the twentieth century to tell the story of what life was like in the city in which Tut was born and lived the first half of his life. By concentrating on this aspect of the Amarna period, we provide the visitor with another view into life in ancient Egypt during the reign of the "boy" king.

  • For more on Tutankhamun and the exhibition, see TutWatch.

© 2006 by the Archaeological Institute of America