When the King Tut exhibition first came to New York more than two decades ago it garnered a huge amount of interest. I myself was not particularly interested. After all, what was so great about an obscure boy-king who was not known for any great achievements ? I wasn’t one of those who stood in line to see it .
When the expanded exhibition once again came to New York City this year for a year long engagement, I came to know about it only by chance . My sister-in-law who was visiting us from Washington D.C was very keen on seeing it and we accompanied her to the exhibit.
I’m very glad we did because it is a must-see for anyone with the slightest interest in history.
The first surprise was the site of the exhibition, the Discovery theater located in what was formerly the ( New York) Times building ( The Gray Lady of Times Square) on West 44th Street. I had known that the Times was now being printed in Edison, NJ but didn’t know that the Times building was no longer being used for newspaper purposes. Our tickets were for 11:30 AM on a Friday morning ( patrons are issued tickets for a specific time in order to regulate the crowds) and we took an escalator down to the high ceilinged black-walled exhibition space on the cellar floor. After a brief introductory talk , we were admitted into the first of a series of halls in which the exhibition is housed.
The first hall gives patrons a brief history of Egyptian history, in particular the eighteenth dynasty. Photographs , wall maps and videos show the Valley of the Kings and Howard Carter’s 1922 discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb. Subsequent halls contain artifacts from the tomb , furnishings, ornaments , funerary & canopic urns, weaponry etc. In the last hall are replicas of the mummified remains of Tuntankamen and two foetuses , thought to be his still born daughters. A video details how DNA from the mummies in the Valley of Kings was used to establish his identity and lineage. The cause of his death had previously been shrouded in mystery and it had been speculated that he had been poisoned ; however, modern forensic methods have been used to postulate that it was malaria that carried him off at the tender age of 19. A close examination of the mummy also has established that one of his feet was fractured, possibly in a hunting accident, and that he must have been in considerable pain the last months of his life.
King Tut , as he has been christened by us moderns, ascended to the throne at the age of 9 and died suddenly barely ten years later. His one notable achievement was that he reversed the religious policies of his father, Akhenaten ( formerly Amenhotep IV). Akhenaten had repudiated the pantheon of traditional Egyptian gods , and declared that there was only one god , Aten , the deity of the sun. He was also in the process of moving the capital to the newly formed city of Amanra. Tutankkhamen restored the ancient gods and moved the capital back to Thebes before he died suddenly. What this exhibition does is to take us back to those ancient times, give us an idea of what life was like then. The harsh life of the commoners, the palace intrigues, the place of religion, the deification of the Pharoah, the belief in the afterlife, the dependence on the waters of the Nile… all these we understand as we view the various exhibits in their glass cases. One feature which viewers will appreciate greatly is that there are explanatory notes for each exhibit not only at waist height but also on all four sides at the top. This enables patrons to view the display from all sides instead of being bunched together in the front. Children also can read the captions conveniently.
Needless to say, the artistry of the ornaments is breathtaking. One item that stands out in my memory is a cabinet ,made of gold, whose sides depict scenes from the life of the Pharoah ; i was simply superb. There were also some surprises. There was a box with a hinged lid ( I didn’t know the ancient Egyptians had developed hinges) and another whose lid swung open to one side. Surprisingly sophisticated for the time. I had read and enjoyed the Egyptian mysteries of P.C. Doherty featuring the adventures of Amerotke, Chief Judge in the time of the female Pharoah Hatasu ( Hatshepsut) ; this exhibit was a vivid reminder of the society of those times.
We also saw a 24 minute 3-D video presentation( separate admission) about the Valley of the Kings and the discoveries therein. Very enjoyable and highly recommended. The King Tut exhibit will be on view at this location until the end of the year and I recommend it highly. If you do go, do not spend extra to rent the audio handset ; it merely replicates the information you can read off the labels in the display cases. Incidentally, you can reserve your tickets at the local Costco, if you so choose, and pick them up at the theater.