The Last Tour Of King Tut


On Sunday morning I went to the Tutankhamun exhibition at London’s Saatchi Gallery, where the club-footed boy king is on a last world tour before heading off to the new purpose-built Giza Museum overcooking the Great Pyramid. There, its 150 artefacts will be reunited with the items that cannot leave Egypt, like his golden death mask and the outer coffins.

Tutankhamun became pharaoh when he was nine, after the death of his father, Akhenaten. A frail lad, he nevertheless fathered two stillborn children before his death at 19. He was subsequently erased from history.

I saw the rest of his artefacts in the old, dusty, underlit Cairo Museum. Since then Egypt suffered a disastrous tourism slump. I was  in Luxor shortly after 62 tourists were gunned to death in 1997. Since then suicide bombers have tried and failed to repeat the atrocity (as recently as four years ago). So King Tut is back on the road hitting 10 cities before heading home, drumming up renewed interest in Egypt.

The exhibition is the first since 1974’s tour at the British Museum which I queued forever to see (no online timed bookings then), and which was greeted with the same level of public adulation. What has changed in the interim is the showmanship of the tour. His display is now a blingy, glitzy pop culture show that concentrates on the boy, his spiritual journey and Howard Carter’s discovery. Although it’s largely shorn of context in order to wow the crowds, with a heavily audiovisual son et lumiere presentation, fancy lighting and music, nothing can detract from the extraordinary items on display.

Here are his carved guardians through the netherworld, his gold-leaf bed, the organ boxes and catafalques, representations of the gods, lowly cases holding food for his journey. Many of the best pieces are the smallest; a carved walking stick in the shape of a bending man, an intricately woven elbow-length glove, a board game and markers that remind us that the ruler was a slightly-built teenager. The paradox lies in the fact that this minor king was meant to have been forgotten, but Carter’s meticulous preservation of the find, which changed the methodology of archaeology, means that his is the only complete royal excavation in 33 centuries.

This point is brought home by a link to the Egyptian belief that we die twice; once when the soul departs the body and again when the last person who remembers our name dies. Howard Carter, it is suggested, with his lifelong dedication to finding the boy-king, restored him to memorability and thus returned him to spiritual life.

14 comments on “The Last Tour Of King Tut”

  1. Peter Tromans says:

    I well recall the queue, but I’m sure it was 1972, for me, immediately after the marathon of my second year university exams. Carter linked his name with Tut and made both immortal.

  2. Cornelia Appleyard says:

    I was in that queue as well. It was worth the wait.
    I see it costs £28.50 to get in this time – can anyone remember whether it was included in free museum admission last time, or how much it cost if it wasn’t? I doubt whether I would have gone (student without rich parents) if it was anything like the equivalent amount.

  3. Ford says:

    Erm! Am I being silly but how about the permanent replica exhibition in Dorchester – under a tneer for adults!!!!

  4. Ford says:

    Ooops! Theat should have been “under a tenner for adults!”

  5. Ian Luck says:

    This was one of my great fascinations as a child. The story of Carter’s discovery of the tomb still gives me a thrill. You have massive tombs all around you, some which have not yet been fully examined. You also have what is basically the remains of an ancient building contractors yard. Do you; (a) Check out the tombs, or (b) Knock down the remnants of the workmen’s huts, and excavate under them? If you said (b), then you have won the star prize of all of 1922.
    And the much touted ‘Curse Of The Pharoahs’? I think you’ll find that it originated much nearer home. Fleet Street. The Daily Mail offices, most likely.

  6. Jo W says:

    Unfortunately,I never got to see the exhibition in the seventies. I asked the way there and somehow ended up on the Northern Line heading for Tooting Common.
    ( Apologies for the old joke but I’ve had a hard morning shopping,which I hate, and I thought someone else could join in my suffering. Off now for a livener.) 😉

  7. admin says:

    ’72 it was.

    I saw quite a lot of Egyptiana in situ. This led to the bizarre moment when Maggie Armitage rang me to discuss her boiler and I answered, ‘I can’t talk now. I’m inside the Great Pyramid at Giza.’ Better reception than in King’s Cross.

  8. Helen Martin says:

    Admin, that is the answer line to end all answer lines! I saw the exhibit in Seattle and don’t remember what year. My Mother and I had gone through an archaeology phase when I was 12/13 and we read all the Egypt/ Troy stuff we could find. (The Troy gold that what’s his name (the German guy) photographed on his wife would now seem to be in Russia after it disappeared from Berlin in 1945) It’s interesting that so many people on this site have the sight of those objects as such a high point in their lives. I was just discussing it with a friend who will be seeing the theatre broadcast of what’s it Glass’ opera. (I’m out of medication and tired from a day of quilting. That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it.

    On an up note: as I left this morning the mail carrier brought my copy of England’s Finest in beautiful condition and I have now carefully opened it outsides in to protect the spine. Happy, happy.

  9. Helen Martin says:

    The “German guy” was Heinrich Schleimann, of course, and the opera is Philip Glass’ Ahknaten which was written in 1983 in Egyptian. The New York Met is apparently doing it in English – the surscripts would be interesting otherwise. Do you suppose they took the code derived from the Rosetta Stone and actually recreated the language? Dead languages don’t seem to be a problem for Mr. Glass- he did one in Sanscrit as well, although that’s not dead yet.

  10. Sally Erickson says:

    I saw the Tut exhibit at the Field Museum in Chicago many decades ago. It was beautifully presented. We went to a special showing at night when the rest of the museum was closed. I’ll never forget going around a corner and seeing the gold mask all by itself. Absolutely stunning!

  11. Denise says:

    I went with the art school but the wait was too long. I remember not being able to see where the line started. I went to see the Pre – Raphaelite paintings at the Tate instead. We found the paintings in the basement!

  12. roxanne reynolds says:

    David Macaulay’s ‘Motel of the Mysteries’ is a brilliant send-up of Schliemann.

  13. Trace Turner says:

    I was 12 when I saw the King Tut exhibit in Washington DC on a school trip in 1977. The trip by motor coach up from Florida was incredibly long as were the lines into the museum and everything else we saw. It made a big impression on me though and jump started my love of museums. The cost of the whole trip was $100.00. My parents put up a sheet of writing paper in the kitchen and I had to write down all of the chores I did on it. They paid set amounts for things – twenty five cents for folding laundry or washing dishes. I was thrilled when I finally worked enough to go on the trip.

  14. Helen Martin says:

    You’d really value the trip that way, Trace/

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