This modern-day manifestation of Akhenaten and I are onboard the Tut Trolley in front of Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute, where Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs will show from February 3 to the end of September as the last U.S. stop on its world tour. This blockbuster exhibition is organized by National Geographic, AEG Exhibitions, and Arts and Exhibitions International in cooperation with Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, represented by its secretary general, Dr. Zahi Hawass G’83 Gr’87. Before its Philadelphia stop, Tutankhamun traveled to Fort Lauderdale, Los Angeles, and Chicago. From here, it will go on to London in November before returning to Egypt.

In our modern chariot the heretic pharaoh and I are heading to the city’s other great Egyptian exhibit, Amarna: Ancient Egypt’s Place in the Sun, which opened in November 2006 and runs through October at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

Amarna offers a full context for Akhenaten’s capital city—and the birthplace of King Tutankhamun. It also sets in place the everyday life of the average citizen, who was asked to move hearth and home and live in this strangely new city that was largely set up for pageantry. The old gods’ annual days were replaced by the king and queen’s daily appearance to worship the Aten, so that, essentially, every day was a festival. The city rose and set with the sun in more ways than one. The two exhibits offer rich and complementary portraits of the Amarna period (1353-1319 BCE) before, during, and after the city’s brief existence, and also for the span of Egypt’s Golden Age, particularly its 18th Dynasty, from 1539 BCE to 1292 BCE.

Hawass asked his former teacher, Dr. David Silverman, the Eckley Brinton Coxe, Jr. Professor of Egyptology in Penn’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations and curator of the museum’s Egyptology Section, to be the national curator for Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs.

Silverman says he was thrilled, especially since he had also been involved with the 1976-79 Treasures of Tutankhamun exhibition that toured four cities in the U.S. At the time, Silverman was a curator at the Field Museum, and created the curatorial content for the Chicago Tut show. For the new exhibition, he created the storyline and the content for all four U.S. shows while working closely with the design company Art and Entertainment International (and in Los Angeles, with the McMillan Group, Inc., who also designed Amarna). Mark Lach, senior vice president of Arts and Exhibitions International, has been overseeing the design for each Tut venue and travels and lives with the show. In November he was already in Philadelphia, settling in to start the work of transforming two main spaces at the Franklin Institute into a three-dimensional story told through the 11 galleries that detail the show.

Once the space configurations are established, Silverman and the designers don’t rest. With the advances in exhibit design since the 1970s, making changes is less costly, so exhibitors and curators can be more flexible in meeting public interests. For instance, when several visitors asked Silverman the same question about what is a cartouche, he was able to rewrite and insert a display label in the exhibit to provide the answer (the oblong or oval shape enclosing the names of pharaohs and gods in hieroglyphs).

In addition to working on story, content, and design, Silverman has also been promoting the exhibit in television and radio interviews, and at special events around the country.

When it was decided that the new exhibit would make its only East Coast stop in Philadelphia rather than New York, Silverman, despite an already bursting schedule, decided to act quickly and proposed the Penn exhibit, Amarna.

“We have a very good collection [at Penn] and so that’s when it seemed the right thing to do,” says Silverman, “This exhibit [Tutankhamun] has created a lot of interest in ancient Egypt in this particular time period. It’s generated a lot of questions that people have sent to me. I was so happy to have the opportunity to do the complementary exhibit because it allows us to expand on the story that we’re telling.”

In developing the show, he worked with two other Penn Egyptologists as co-curators—Jennifer R. Houser Wegner C’91 and her husband Josef Wegner C’89 Gr’96. Houser Wegner is a research scientist in Penn Museum’s Egyptian Section and an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, while Wegner is associate curator of the section and professor and undergraduate chair in the department.

Like Zahi Hawass, Houser Wegner and Wegner were also Silverman’s students at Penn. (After earning her undergraduate degree here, Houser Wegner went to Yale for her doctorate.) The three co-curators are also good friends, and were well suited to the intense challenge of pulling together Amarna within under a year so as to open before Tutankhamun got to town.

They selected more than 100 artifacts from Penn’s collection for the four part exhibition. These pieces speak about the cherished gods that were banned during Akhenaten’s reign, about Amarna’s quick rise and fall, about the city’s royal family and its everyday citizens, and about Tutankhamun’s restoration of the old gods.

Among the most impressive pieces is a tall stone relief in the second section, called the Amarna Stella, which depicts Akhenaten and his eldest daughter Meritaten worshipping the Aten. Archaeologists found it in reuse by Ramses the Great, a pharoah of the 19th Dynasty; the carvings of the Aten were hidden and inscriptions added around the edges about Ramses and his son.

Evocative of pre-Aten Egypt are two life-size carved busts that stare across the space at each other in the first section of the exhibit depicting the lion-headed goddess Sekhmet. But perhaps the most arresting piece is a statue of the god Amun in the final section. He is carved in greywacke (a smoky-colored stone) and his face bears Tutankhamun’s features, holding a solid, approachable, and reassuring gaze.

The Penn Museum possesses the third largest Egyptology collection in the U.S., after the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, a legacy going back more than a century to the museum’s founding. Many of the pieces on display for Amarna come from excavations that occurred in the 1890s through the 1920s, particularly those headed by Sir William Flinders Petrie under the British Egypt Exploration Fund (later called the Egypt Exploration Society), to which the fledgling Penn Museum contributed support.

Throughout the process of curating Amarna, Silverman continually considered how the exhibit’s story would complement the main show. “The story in both places has really to do with discovery, discovery of what the culture was like during this century of time,” Silverman explains. “What I wanted to do in the big exhibition, before we even knew we were going to have one here, was to give context in time, in place, in family, and in life and in death, and to weave a story.”

The result is two exhibits made for each other like the pharaoh’s crook and flail; both give a solid portrayal of ancient Egypt before Akhenaten and Tutankhamun and of the 18th Dynasty. While Tutankhamun peaks with King Tutankhamun’s story, Amarna’s apex is its deeper context for the brief—and swift—decades that defined the city and the everyday life of Tutankhamun’s boyhood and coming of age. Josef Wegner highlights the main mysteries that shroud the Amarna period. “There’s a heretic pharaoh who outlaws the gods, there’s Nefertiti who disappears in the middle [of the Amarna period], and there’s a boy king.”

Unlike the 1970s Tutankhamun show, for which he only curated the Chicago exhibition, Silverman has had creative input on the national tour, developing the storyline and working closely with the exhibit designer in each city toward executing the story in three dimensions. The most significant difference this time around is the scope and number of objects on loan from Egypt, which has greatly expanded the story that can be told, he says. While only 55 objects were included in Treasures of Tutankhamun, the current exhibition includes 50 objects from Tut’s tomb along with more than 70 objects from other 18th Dynasty royal tombs as well as from some nonroyal people. Moreover, most of the pieces were never seen in the 1970s, and for many this is the first time they have ever been allowed outside Egypt.

This past September, with the Tut and Amarna exhibits in the offing, the Penn Museum declared a “Year of Egypt,” during which it plans to offer weekly events, including themed gallery tours, belly-dance classes, workshops, a film series, and lectures. Greater Philadelphia is joining in with restaurants and bars, shops, spas, hotels, and other city museums and galleries offering Egypt-inspired foods, goods, tours, and services. In between exhibits, for example, visitors can indulge themselves with a “Cleopatra Rescue Treatment” at Rescue Rittenhouse Spa Lounge, enjoy traditional Egyptian cuisine at the family-run Aya’s Café, or imbibe a King Tut-ini at McGillin’s Olde Ale House. From one great river people to another, everyone is in on this revolution.

The Radical and the Restorer By Beebe Bahrami

Photos: (Amarna) University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and Tom Jenkins; (Tutankhamun) © Andreas F. Voegelin, Antikenmuseum Basel and Sammlung Ludwig.

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(Clockwise from left) One of four miniature coffins possessed by Tut, made of gold inlaid with colored glass and semi-precious stones; a ring bezel decorated with the cartouche of Tutankhamun; a wooden comb found in Amarna; and a seal of Amenhotep III, Akhenaten’s grandfather.

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©2007 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 01/05/07