Friday, June 26, 2009

Exhibition: More re Tutankhamun in San Francisco

SF Examiner (Steven Winn)

Tutankhamun in the present day

Gold, gold and more gold. Ornate jewelry studded with jewels and desert glass. Alabaster and faience. Delicate perfume vases and charming model boats. Game boards and thrones. Footstools and figurines. The mummy of Tut himself, sealed inside three nested coffins, which were in turn tucked inside four gorgeously etched and gilded wooden shrines. Affirmed by some 5,398 objects in all, the legend of the Golden King, the Egyptian Boy King, was born.

Today, the better part of a century later, it’s hard to overestimate the impact of Carter’s discovery. In launching a global fascination with Tutankhamun, and by extension with the grand arc of ancient Egyptian civilization, this great find ignited imaginations everywhere. It led to everything from serious scholarship to hieroglyphic-print miniskirts, a fresh appreciation of Egyptian artistry to the 1937 Three Stooges short “We Want Our Mummy.” It gave us CAT scans of Tut’s remains and a backstory for “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”

Never mind the pop-culture myths and madness about a curse of King Tut that have flourished through the years. Tut’s great, unexpected gift to the modern world is a renewed reverence for history itself; a hunger to comprehend the web of social, economic and spiritual belief systems that evolved and endured for centuries; and an awestruck sense of connection to a distant and fully formed world.

It all began with the marvels that Carter uncovered and, in a period of 10 years, revealed to the public. From the breathless early press reports to the blockbuster exhibition of Tut artifacts that toured North America in the late 1970s, luxury and splendor were the predominant draws. San Franciscans lined up in record-breaking numbers to see the famous gold coffin and death mask that headlined “The Treasures of Tutankhamun” in that show’s 1979 run at the de Young Museum.

But there was always much more to the story and meaning of King Tut than those 55 objects could convey. Now, exactly 30 years later, in a resonant and adroitly timed second act, “Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs” arrives at the de Young to advance and deepen this beguiling Egyptian narrative.

And Tutankhamun in the past

SF Examiner (Steven Winn)

Thirty years ago, when the first major collection of King Tut artifacts conquered North America, San Francisco was the touring show’s gold standard. The 1,367,000 visitors who thronged the de Young Museum from June to October 1979 set the attendance record for the seven U.S. cities graced by “The Treasures of Tutankhamun.”

People stood in line all night for advance tickets, as if the show were a museum-world version of “Star Wars.” Miniature gold coffins and Egyptian-look jewelry sold out in shops around town. Faux pharaonic dress and tomb-decor parties flourished. KFRC gave Steve Martin’s goofy-funky “King Tut” song plenty of airplay.

But the “Tutmania” that swept the Bay Area that summer almost didn’t happen.

Excluded from the original touring schedule, San Francisco put on a last-ditch, full-court press to bring the exhibition to Golden Gate Park. A delegation headed by arts patrons Cyril Magnin and Walter Newman, and Fine Arts Museums director Ian White, flew to Cairo to plead The City’s case.

The San Franciscans had several things to offer. One was money — a major donation to the Cairo Egyptian Antiquities Museum. The other was an Egyptian frieze the de Young was about to buy from a Parisian dealer. After learning that it had first been taken from Egypt illegally by the British Museum, White promised to return the frieze to Cairo. With a handshake from Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, the deal to bring Tut to San Francisco was done.

That ’79 show was a watershed event. For both serious and casual art lovers, it was the first in a wave of blockbuster exhibits that would transform the museum-going experience in the decades to come. Unprecedented popular attention, timed ticket sales, gusher gift shop sales and a flood of new members all became part of the way art museums connected to the public, raised revenue and funded new ventures. Subsequent huge shows devoted to Picasso, Monet or the collection of St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum had the ancient Egyptian Boy King to thank as an advance man.

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