The 'King of Bling'


June 10, 2005 — -- He is a 3,000-year-old celebrity who got a new promoter this year and is expected to set box office records on a 27-month tour of U.S. cities. He did it once before, and became a cultural phenomenon.

Between 1976 and 1979, more than 8 million Americans visited the museums that displayed "The Treasures of Tutankhamun" -- priceless objects from the tomb of an Egyptian boy pharaoh, nicknamed King Tut, that for the first time had people attaching the word "blockbuster" to a museum exhibit.

On June 16, a new exhibit, "Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs," will open at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Over the next two years, the exhibit will visit museums in three other cities -- Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; Chicago; and Philadelphia.

The '70s tour created a frenzy because people wanted to see "these utterly impeccable objects … that looked like they were made two days ago," said Tom Hoving, who headed the team that organized the groundbreaking exhibit. Hoving was then director of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. He is also the author of the book, "Tutankhamun: The Untold Story."

"It was like people could almost reach out and shake the hand of a bygone civilization," Hoving said.

The reason the objects are so well-preserved, of course, is that Tut's tomb escaped centuries of looting and desecration because it was obscured by construction for another pharaoh, and Tutankhamun was largely forgotten. In 1922, the discovery of the intact burial chamber by Howard Carter, the English Egyptologist, created a worldwide sensation, even though Tutankhamun was only a minor king.

"We know nothing about him," said Hoving. "There's not a line of hieroglyphs found in the tomb. No histories. No nothing. Zero. But who cares? This stuff is gorgeous. Unparalleled. When you look at it, you're moved to another realm."

That journey to another realm will come at an additional cost to those who view the new exhibit. Because of financial guarantees to the Egyptian government and the recruitment of middlemen as sponsors to cover the burden of financing, the LA County Museum will charge as much as $30 for admission to the exhibit. One of the companies involved with the museum show, AEG LIVE Exhibitions, also has experience promoting rock and sports stars.

New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art refused the show because of a policy of not charging above its suggested general admission fees for entry to any special exhibit.

A spokesperson for the LA County Museum says that although tickets are selling at an unprecedented rate, they are "far from being sold out."

Times have changed in other ways, too. In Fort Lauderdale, which is anticipating an influx of tourist dollars when the exhibit makes its second stop there, the Convention and Visitor's Bureau is designing a campaign hailing Tut in up-to-date terms as "The King of Bling."

"He is the King of Bling," laughed Hoving. "That jewelry that they found on him, some of it is in solid gold. You can hardly lift the stuff. It is astonishing. And that was [just] in the mummy wrappings!"

The mask that was the symbol of the first exhibit won't be seen on the new tour because Egyptian law now prevents it from leaving the country. But 50 objects from Tut's tomb will be on display, including the gold crown that was found on his mummified body. In addition, dozens of objects have been brought from the tombs of other Pharoahs.

A National Geographic display will show CT scans of the mummy. The scans indicated that Tut was not killed by a blow to his head, as was once speculated, but that a broken bone in his leg might have led to an infection that killed him, probably at the age of 18 or 19.

Another aspect of the exhibit that has continually fascinated people is the story of a curse on the boy king's tomb. In the decade after the tomb was discovered, several people connected with the expedition died of unnatural causes. Those stories contributed to the plots of a series of movies -- the first in 1932 -- in which a mummy's wrath was visited on anyone who dared challenge a curse against violating the tomb.

"Sorry," said Hoving. "It was a bogus story."

Hoving said the curse was invented by a British journalist hoping to boost his paper's circulation. "'Death will come on swift wings to ye that violate,' all this stuff. They made it up. And it just got out of control," he said.

There's also a postscript to this reborn interest in Tut: Hoving says the real creator of that first blockbuster tour was a man who told the Egyptians it was a way to improve political relations with the United States during a shift in the Cold War: Richard Nixon.

"America had just come into Egypt, after years of not being there, and the Russians had been thrown out. And Nixon said to Sadat, 'Show the friendship of Egypt to the United States by sending the Tut show.' And Sadat said, 'Done.' I got a call two days later from Henry Kissinger, who said, 'You will organize the show.' "

When asked if there is a way to put a value on the exhibit, Hoving answered, "No, it's priceless. There's nothing like it. It's one of a kind. Frankly, if I were involved today, and Henry Kissinger called me up and said, 'Would you do it?' I'd say no. The risk is too much after 9/11."

He added, "Who knows what can trigger something?"

King Tut will never have to leave home to preside in spirit over this new exhibit. The mummy remains in Tut's burial chamber in Egypt's Valley of the Kings.

But a life that ended 3,300 years ago, and objects that are such symbols of permanence, are every bit as stunning as symbols of change.

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