Tut's tomb, revisited

King Tut

When “Treasures of Tutankhamen” landed on American shores in the late 1970s, crowds eager to see the boy king’s tomb waited in line for hours. It was the first “blockbuster,” and it inspired a nationwide interest in Egypt. Even comedian Steve Martin was stirred by the exhibition, penning “King Tut,” a humorous ode to the mysterious boy king.

Can Tut still fascinate and captivate audiences 26 years later? David Silverman, a professor of Egyptology in Penn’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, has no doubt that “Tutankhamen and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs” will inspire awe in a new generation. Silverman is serving as the national curator of the collection of priceless artifacts currently on display in Los Angeles, and he hopes the exhibit will motivate audiences to learn more about ancient Egyptian culture and history.

But local Egypt–philes will have to be patient, as this showstopper won’t arrive at the Franklin Institute here until February of 2007, after stops in Fort Lauderdale and Chicago. Featuring 50 major artifacts from Tut’s tomb and more than 70 objects from other 18th-century B.C. royal graves, it should be worth the wait.

Highlights for Silverman include a colossal statue of a man (probably Tut’s father) that once stood 12 to 15 feet high. For the exhibit, the statue has been raised up to its original height so it appears to look down at viewers. This gives audiences an entirely new viewpoint of the figure, says Silverman. He also particularly enjoys the first piece in the show—a wooden painted torso of King Tut dressed in a humble outfit, with just a little gilding on his crown. “You get the impression of what the boy king was really like,” Silverman says. “These ancient Egyptian rulers had a human side.”

Silverman, who is also curator of the Egyptian Section at the Penn Museum, developed the storyline for this King Tut extravaganza and wrote all of the text for the labels. Back in the late 1970s, when he was a graduate student at the University of Chicago, he wrote labels for the first Tutankhamen exhibition—his first job in his chosen field.

While much has been made of the relatively high ticket price for this exhibition—$25 for an adult ticket at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art—Silverman insists that it’s a small price to pay for a slice of rich cultural history. The exhibition will raise money to protect crumbling artifacts in Egypt, such as the Pyramids and the Sphinx. “It’s for a very, very good cause, at least,” says Silverman.

To complement the traveling exhibit, Penn Museum will showcase some of its own Egyptian treasures in an exhibition opening in November of 2006. Be sure to look for the Kneeling King (above)—the only known black bronze statue of Tut.

Originally published on September 8, 2005