Treasures of Tutankhamun
Tutankhamun: His Tomb and His Treasures
The Gold of Tutankhamun
Egyptian Treasures from the Collections of the Brooklyn Museum
An Egyptian Hieroglyphic Dictionary
Ramesses the Great, Master of the World
Tutankhamun: The Untold Story
The Discovery of the Tomb of Tutankhamen
The Ancient Egyptians: A Sourcebook of Their Writings
The Wisdom of the Ancient Egyptians
Ancient Egypt: A Cultural Topography
Egyptian Religion: Egyptian Ideas of the Future Life
The Egyptian Gods: A Handbook
Temples, Tombs and Hieroglyphs
Red Land, Black Land: Daily Life in Ancient Egypt
Our Inheritance in the Great Pyramid
Serpent in the Sky: The High Wisdom of Ancient Egypt
The First Practical Pyramid Book
The Shrines of Tut-Ankh-Amon
The Egypt Story: Its Art, Its Monuments, Its People, Its History
By the time the Tutankhamun exhibition closes in San Francisco, it will have been seen by more than eight million people, almost all of whom had to apply for reserved tickets: the potential audience was probably twice as large again. Museum directors and their PR men have in the past decade become experts at what one critic nicely terms “the techniques of hype and hoopla,” the hard sell of cultural packages, from the Chinese show of 1973 to this year’s “Pompeii AD ’79”: not surprisingly, since the windfalls that such happenings generate can be immense, and the “Tut craze” is the biggest money-maker of the lot. The New Orleans Museum of Art, for instance, let it be known that “a minimum of $69.4 million was pumped into the New Orleans economy” in no more than four months, as a direct result of the Tutankhamun exhibition being on view there.1
In The New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town” column for December 25, 1978, there was an interview with Tutankhamun himself (“We found the boy king in the pale pink sitting room of his suite, wearing a Turnbull and Asser djellabah and sipping Perrier”), in which he was asked if his spectacle had a theme, and replied with commendable bluntness: “Yes, it’s about gold, man. Heavy metal.” So it is, and in more ways than one. When Robert Hughes characterized the art world in these pages as “the last refuge for nineteenth-century laissez-faire capitalism” he was not indulging in idle hyperbole. The Egyptian government alone anticipates making about $7 million out of Tut’s peregrinations in the US and Canada, all earmarked (despite some rumors to the contrary) for revamping the display facilities of the Cairo Museum.
Yet Ahmed Abushadi, press counselor to the Egyptian Embassy, has described the sum as “peanuts,” and is on record2 as saying: “We didn’t bring the show here for the money, or we’d have demanded a fair share of the millions made by cities around the country on it.” It is interesting, too, that a large amount of the cash-flow comes from what has been labeled “Tutsploitation” or the “Tut glut”: Tut beer mugs, T-shirts, tote-bags, stationery, posters, paper dolls, whiskey decanters, and, at a slightly more pretentious level, the replicas of Egyptian artifacts marketed, as an exclusive monopoly, by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. These range from simple ankh pendants or crook-and-flail pins to a gold-surfaced copy of the exquisite statuette of the goddess Selket, going for $1,850, and unkindly described by Franz Schulze (above, note 1) as “neo-sleazo.” One can argue that museums are putting too much of their efforts into department store salesmanship, but the trend strikes me as comparatively harmless, having the advantage of bringing some attractive historical designs within reach of almost anyone who can appreciate them. No one is forced to buy the other items.
A far more intriguing question is just why a collection of grave goods from the tomb of a minor, and in his own…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.