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Tut, Tut

There are some fascinating objects in this wannabe blockbuster, but mainly it's a grab for crowds and cash.

You may have already grown accustomed to the giant fiberglass statue of Anubis outside the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; the jackal-headed Egyptian god of the afterlife looks more like something from the Magic Kingdom than the Old Kingdom. Currently presiding over traffic on Bissonnet (and wearing an MFAH medallion and a red "Go Texan" bandana), Anubis will be leaving soon, along with the Disney-esque MFAH presentation "Tutankhamun: The Golden King and the Great Pharaohs," which arrived last October and will depart April 15. Your opportunity to shell out $33 for the un-discounted adult weekend admission is limited.

If you are a member, you can get in for $23. Kids under five are free, but your six-year-old will need to cough up 15 bucks. These are pretty steep prices, but then, the exhibition is brought to you by the worldwide sports and entertainment conglomerate AEG and its divisions AEI (Arts and Exhibitions International) and AEG Live. AEI is the group responsible for scholarly stuff like "Diana: A Celebration" (currently on view at Foxwoods Resort Casino in Mashantucket, Connecticut; next stop, Mall of the Americas in Bloomington, Minnesota). AEG Live has brought the world Celine Dion in Vegas and music festivals like Rocklahoma. With National Geographic on board to lend a veneer of legitimacy, these for-profit entities worked out a deal with Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities under the former Mubarak regime to essentially pimp out the cultural heritage of Egypt for cash — some for them, some for Egypt, maybe some for the museums.

When AEI and AEG brought a similar King Tut exhibition to the Dallas Museum of Art in 2008 for "Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs," there was a great hue and cry in the art world over a for-profit entity exhibiting at the nonprofit institution. (Similar concerns/outrage were voiced when the same show was presented at LACMA in 2005.) In the Houston Chronicle, Douglas Britt tackled the same issues for this show prior to its opening.

Lovely but tiny: The "canopic coffinette" was sized to hold Tutankhamun's stomach.
© Sandro Vannini, courtesy of MFAH
Lovely but tiny: The "canopic coffinette" was sized to hold Tutankhamun's stomach.
Artifacts like this Box of Cartouches of Amenhotep III are interesting in themselves, but the show isn't really pulling stuff together to create a richer sense of understanding.
© Sandro Vannini, courtesy of MFAH
Artifacts like this Box of Cartouches of Amenhotep III are interesting in themselves, but the show isn't really pulling stuff together to create a richer sense of understanding.

The numbers aren't in yet for the MFAH, but the financial arrangements that would supposedly be so lucrative for the DMA turned out to be less so. Dallas came up 400,000 short of its expected one million visitors. According to the MFAH, the attendance numbers and projections for the show here are not made public by agreement with AEI. My hunch is that AEI was burned by the DMA numbers and is trying to avoid a similar situation. Regardless, the MFAH anticipated Tut throngs to the extent that the museum is now open on Mondays and has extended hours on several other days. For a time, they added a remote (and resurfaced) parking lot. It's no longer in use.

At the press preview for the MFAH event last October, AEI Senior Vice President Mark Lach told us how so many museums were clamoring for this show, but that he chose the lucky MFAH. (In showing the exhibition, the MFAH joined the ranks of such venerable arts institutions as the Science Museum of Minnesota, the Atlanta Civic Center and the Children's Museum of Indianapolis.) In Lach's bio on the AEI site, the copy about his involvement in the Tut show(s) reads, "Perhaps his most demanding project to date, the exhibition design requires a delicate balance between theatrical elements and reverence of the ancient objects themselves." I guess that's where Indiana Jones as narrator comes in.

Exhibition entry is timed to accommodate the crowds, which were nonexistent on a recent Monday visit. (To be fair, I have seen people lining up for Tut on some of my visits to the MFAH.) When the attendant gives you the signal, you walk into a darkened room. A video plays, and Harrison Ford's voice dramatically explains that Egypt's leaders were called pharaohs and ends with, "Now come, travel back in time. See where and how these rulers lived and experience the thrill..." The music reaches a crescendo, and the doors magically swing open to reveal the exhibition. It's stupid and hokey, and God knows how much they shelled out to get Ford as a narrator.

At the October press preview, Frances Marzio, Peter Marzio's widow and curator of the Glassell Collections, said that Marzio had died knowing this exhibition would happen. I found that statement quite sad, because this kind of exhibition exemplifies the worst of Marzio's tenure. Since the director's passing, there have been a number of unequivocally laudatory media outpourings about his 28 years at the MFAH. Peter Marzio did some great things in that time, among them establishing the Latin American Art Department and its research institute, the International Center for the Arts of the Americas (ICAA), and raising a staggering amount of money for the museum.

But he also instigated ethically bereft shows like "First Down Houston: The Birth of an NFL Franchise," which showcased photographs documenting the first year of MFAH trustee Bob McNair's Houston Texans [see "Incest is Wrong," November 27, 2003]. It's shows like "Tut" and the inability to resist a cash-generating opportunity that undermined the MFAH and cast a pall over other, far more admirable achievements by Marzio.

The ICAA just launched the Web site Documents of 20th-Century Latin American and Latino Art: A Digital Archive and Publications Project (icaadocs.mfah.org). It's an incredible resource, a phenomenal and unprecedented online archive that anyone can access. That is a far better thing to remember Peter Marzio for.

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Carolyn Allen
Carolyn Allen

Great article and EXACTLY what I thought of the exhibit. MFAH can do much better.

Hbeard85
Hbeard85

Is it bad I kept hearing Steven Martin's 'King Tut' as I read this?

 
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