Tut, Tut

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

Upon entry, the exhibition design features fiberglass "stone" columns and doorways. The display cases are the kind of thing you see in the Galleria presenting overpriced purses. And the exhibition, curated by David Silverman, who's described on the MFAH Web site as the "Ultimate Ancient Egypt Insider" and a "noted Egyptologist from the University of Pennsylvania," just feels random. It's like they tried to put together an exhibition based not around ideas, but around whatever they could get, hinging it on King Tut for maximum draw.

There are statues of pharaohs, pieces of jewelry, a stone toilet seat, canopic jars for internal organs...The artifacts are interesting in themselves, but the show isn't really pulling stuff together to create a richer sense of understanding. And the level of information seems targeted for grade school children. I'm all for kids learning about ancient Egypt, but do we all have to get the Golden Book version?

The MFAH has a history of ham-fisted attempts to bring in the crowds and cash. The infamous "Star Wars: The Magic of Myth" [see "Making Wookie," May 17, 2001] contained film props for a fictitious culture. But at least in Tut there are actual artifacts in the show. Among the high-profile gold objects and political statuary of well-known pharaohs, there are humbler, but oftentimes more fascinating, offerings. The artifacts of daily life, the portraits of the less important and the unassuming objects that found their way somewhat randomly into this exhibition are especially intriguing. If you can swing the admission, the show is worth seeing, in spite of the Barnum & Bailey presentation.

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.

Location Info


Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

1001 Bissonnet St.
Houston, TX 77005

Category: Museums

Region: Kirby-West U


"Tutankhamun: The Golden King and the Great Pharaohs"

Through April 15. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1001 Bissonnet, 713-639-7300.

One of the show's real jewels is a small sketch on a piece of limestone from 1372 to 1355 B.C. It's a partially incised image of a princess holding an entire cooked duck up to her mouth, while she grabs a piece of fruit from a bowl. The contours of the figure are incredibly spare and elegant, in spite of the fact that she's about to scarf down an entire duck. You can see the ink lines that sketched out the image, still seemingly fresh after 3,000 years. It's as if the artist just set it down. It's a moment of cognitive dissonance as you have to remind yourself that the artist stopped working on the piece thousands of years ago and will never complete it.

Artifacts like these have enough power on their own without the bad stage sets. And with bad stage sets, you get bad acting; Egyptian archaeologist, television personality and Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities Zahi Hawass is every-freaking-where. You've probably seen him blustering away in every TV program about ancient Egypt, and he's certainly all over this exhibition. That guy is the PT Barnam of Egyptian archeology. A photo shows Hawass staring interestedly down at the corpse as King Tut's mummy is scanned. A video of scientists doing genetic testing to determine Tut's parentage opens with Hawass, declaring that this was a mystery even he, with all his expertise, couldn't solve. He's there in another video offering superficial observations and describing how he personally discovered the mustachioed wooden statues of a carpenter on view in the exhibition. He's the author of the exhibition's accompanying catalog (which still includes a forward by Suzanne Mubarak, wife of the deposed Egyptian leader.)

Hawass, who served as Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities for a decade (and while they cut the AEG deal), was canned after Mubarak's overthrow. He has been accused of corruption, along with shameless self-promotion, and Nora Shalaby, an Egyptian activist and archeologist, has been quoted as saying: "He was the Mubarak of antiquities. He acted as if he owned Egypt's antiquities, and not that they belonged to the people of Egypt." (Dr. Hawass's Web site is highly entertaining, and he has his own line of Indiana Jones-style hats, retailing for $45 in the exhibition's gift shop.)

When you get to the section about Tutankhamun's tomb, you walk though a tent with stacks of baskets outside and a table of vintage paraphernalia complete with flickering lantern inside, apparently simulating Tut tomb discoverer Howard Carter's working environment. Outside the tent is a large scrim printed with a black-and-white photo of the Valley of the Kings and a video that cycles incessantly. I know it by heart, because I heard it over and over again throughout the exhibition. It begins with, "November 4, 1922, an extraordinary discovery, a waterboy accidentally uncovers the top step of a buried stairway..." and it ends with, "Now, enter the tomb of Tutankhamun!" Lights come on behind the scrim's sheer printed fabric, illuminating the doorway and a photo-mural of the tomb entrance.

Several rooms present selections of artifacts from Tutankhamun's tomb. Another contains a "stereolithography," i.e., a plastic replica of the mummy, and the "dramatic" video of the Tut DNA testing. It includes scenes of child actors re-enacting Tut's imagined idyllic childhood, a little brother surrounded by six older sisters. (The cheesy video is even more ridiculous when you take into account the level of incest and inbreeding in the Egyptian royal families, which the video ignores. The wall text does mention that the DNA testing reveals that Tut's parents were brother and sister, but does not mention that Tutankhamun also married his half-sister.)

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Carolyn Allen
Carolyn Allen

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


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