The last time King Tut came to New York, back in 1979, he was appropriately entombed in the neo-classical temple of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Now, some 30 years on, he returns to less exalted digs at the Discovery Center in Times Square. Yet the change of venue underscores the enhanced fortunes of both Times Square and the Met. Three decades ago, at the perigee of New York’s civic fortunes, the area around this new exhibition would have been buzzing with hookers and addicts and littered with porn shops (and litter). Now, notwithstanding last week’s events, this has transformed into one of the safest, family-friendliest places in America. As for the Met, it has again become one of the most high-minded and unapologetically elitist institutions in the country. Its blockbuster of the moment, after all, is "The Art of Illumination: The Limbourg Brothers and the Belles Heures of Jean de France, Duc de Berry."
But 30 years ago, the late Thomas Hoving, who was the Met’s brash director at the time, had very different ideas for that institution: He aspired to tear down the notional boundaries between the high art inside the building and the unwashed mobs outside. In the process, he ushered in the era of the museum blockbuster, where hordes of newly minted art enthusiasts tackled one another for a glimpse of some frail antiquity, to the sounds of cash registers ringing up Egyptian themed tote-bags in the now-inevitable sales area just beyond the exit; over 1.8 million visitors saw the show at the Met. But its Barnumesque success clings to Hoving’s posthumous reputation like a lewd tattoo—it is emblematic of what serious museum directors are now determined not to do.
As for Tut’s second coming to New York (which winds up his American tour), it is quite easy to make fun of it, and frankly, I intend to do so. You could begin with the press material, which invites us to “Party with the BOY KING and experience the majestry (sic) of the world of the Pharaohs in the exciting 3000-square foot private King Tut event space."
There are also those commercials that have invaded the local television market. A grainy male voice—the sort used in trailers for espionage thrillers—informs you that, as soon as this show is over, Tutankhamun “returns to Egypt—FOREVER!!!” This is highly imprecise for a number of reasons. First of all, there is no good reason to doubt that he will be back in another 30 years or so. Second, he isn’t really here at all. That charred-looking chap lying in state at the end of the exhibition is not the real boy king, but only a facsimile—if that’s the word—of the actual cadaver, which remains in Egypt.
Then there is the deft crowd control that you encounter as soon as you enter the exhibition space. Perky, T-shirted individuals—unlike any guards I have seen in all my years visiting museums, and more akin to the grounds people at rock concerts than humble docents—practically leap on you as you enter the building. After paying nearly $30, you are led through a maze of stanchions and roped off areas that lead into other roped-off areas, that bring you to a zone where you wait some more, before finally entering—another waiting area, where you are compelled to watch a brief and remarkably pointless 90 second film that gets you in the mood, so to speak. At several points you are pestered to purchase an acousta-guide.
And once you gain entry, you are assaulted with music and signage, massage parlor lighting and manipulatively paced exhibits. The only thing that remains beyond the control of the handlers is the art itself and that, it must be said, is magnificent. Whatever this extravaganza might say about our civilization, the refinement of the works on view infallibly reflects the greatest honor upon the civilization that produced it. Perhaps for the first time in visual culture, the Egyptians of the Eighteenth Dynasty (circa 1350 B.C.E.) created not a haphazard congeries of formal tropes, but a unified aesthetic, a paean to geometry and to the sublime justness of right-angles. Not for nothing did this taste conquer Europe on two occasions, in the early nineteenth century and then again in the early twentieth.
From golden sarcophagi and chairs encrusted with ivory, to a royal Canopic bust, unguent vessels, and ceremonial daggers, this show, however improbably, delivers the goods. At the risk of cliché, it purveys memories that deserve to last a lifetime—even if the most lingering memory for some visitors will be of the Egyptian-themed baseballs they purchase in the massive merchandizing area that greets them as soon as they emerge from their presumably life-changing encounter with the Boy King.
James Gardner, formerly the architecture critic of the New York Sun, now writes on culture for several publications.