One Last Global Trip for King Tut

© LABORATORIOROSSO; VITERBO/ITALY

As Egypt prepares to open a new 250,000-square-foot museum to house its ancient treasures, the legendary pharaoh takes a final bow in the largest traveling exhibition yet of his tomb's treasures. 

Tutankhamen’s legacy has been more glorious than his brief life was. He became king of Egypt at nine or ten, and his reign was conducted primarily by advisers. The royal habit of inbreeding left him with an array of genetic and congenital problems, including a cleft palate, a clubfoot, and scoliosis. In time, he married his half sister; their two daughters were stillborn. The exact cause of his death, at 19, has been something of a mystery, though modern forensic science suggests that it was related to a broken leg that became infected. In the absence of a blood heir, the royal family line died along with him. He was buried in a sumptuous tomb that was then sealed, eventually built over, and finally forgotten.

There things stood and there they might have remained were it not for a prominent British archaeologist named Howard Carter, who’d spent his career excavating the region. On November 4, 1922, the first man’s death and the second man’s life intersected, when Carter’s team cleared away some debris on a patch of the Valley of the Kings and found a single stone step leading down into the bedrock. The entire stairway was quickly uncovered, and three weeks later Carter breached the antechamber of Tutankhamen’s tomb, peering in by candlelight at a tableau of treasures. It was the most complete pharaonic burial chamber ever found, among the greatest of all archaeological discoveries, and it made Tutankhamen far more famous in death than he had been in life, a synecdoche for 3,000 years’ worth of pharaohs, his face, as found on his burial mask, as recognizable as any celebrity’s.


Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images

The 20th century loved him, converting his fame into novelty songs and comic-book villains, television miniseries and movies. The exhibition “Treasures of Tutankhamun,” which began at the British Museum in 1972, passed through the U.S.S.R., and then crisscrossed the United States for three years, drawing millions of visitors wherever it stopped. It defined the modern museum blockbuster, and subsequent Tut shows have formed a franchise, with each sequel bigger and better than the last. With “King Tut: Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh,” which opens at the California Science Center in Los Angeles on March 24 and then travels on to nine more cities around the world, this era of Tutankhamen’s life after death finds a finale.


© LABORATORIOROSSO; VITERBO/ITALY

Egypt is a nation of modest means and an almost unrivaled patrimony. The Egyptian Museum in Cairo, where these priceless pharaonic artifacts are held, is a cavernous, dim, musty place, rather like a large thrift store, where ancient objects are jammed into dusty vitrines, often unlabeled, or identified only by handwritten scrawls on slips of paper. Little of it is climate-controlled or protected from the city’s pollution, and even the collection’s guardians represent a risk: A few years ago, a clumsy staffer mishandled Tut’s golden burial mask—the jewel of the collection—snapping off its braided beard, which was then hastily epoxied back on, until someone noticed and brought in a German conservator to repair it.


© LABORATORIOROSSO; VITERBO/ITALY

That kind of disastrous neglect should be overcome with the opening of the Grand Egyptian Museum later this year, a vast new structure with more than 250,000 square feet of floor space, designed by an Irish firm and built a mile or so northwest of the pyramids. In the meantime, Tutankhamen’s things will be making one last globe-trotting trip, in greater splendor than ever before. Until now, the Egyptian government limited shows outside the country to 50 pieces (of the roughly 5,000 they’ve discovered). That has been raised, for this last grand hurrah, to 150, including 60 that have never traveled before.

The California Science Center is an unusual venue for such a show, with its emphasis on discovery rather than mere display. “Storytelling is the most important part of our exhibition,” its organizer, John Norman, told me. Accordingly, he’s produced an interactive extravaganza, with an immersive 360-degree theater, 3-D videos, commissioned music, and so on. It also includes a section on Carter, in honor of the 100th anniversary of the tomb’s unearthing.


© LABORATORIOROSSO; VITERBO/ITALY

 But the artifacts themselves are the stars of the show. They are strange, somewhat unsettling objects, so specific in their presence and yet so distant in time; they feel ghostly, stubborn in their insistence on being neither abstract nor ordinary. They’re not mere antiquities—they’re older than that, older than almost anything we can attach to an individual, centuries older than Confucius, or Homer, or the Hebrew Bible. Nevertheless, they have a level of detail, a unity, a kind of personality, which makes them seem perfectly contemporary, as if the pharaoh had just been there—around the corner, as if we’d just missed him. There is a gilded wooden shrine that shows Tutankhamen and his queen in idealized moments of daily life, and a gold and bejeweled coffin topped by his now-familiar face.


© LABORATORIOROSSO; VITERBO/ITALY

There is an astoundingly beautiful chalice, carved from a solid piece of translucent alabaster, upon which are carved the king’s name and a prayer to send him through eternity. As a rule, one should beware of museum shows that include the word treasures in the title: They’re usually little more than displays of plutocratic vanities, like the crown jewels or Fabergé eggs. Tutankhamen’s burial relics are not that; they’re objects beyond luxury, and they’re meant not for human eyes, but to ferry the boy king’s soul into another world than ours.