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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.

Location Info

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Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

1001 Bissonnet St.
Houston, TX 77005

Category: Museums

Region: Kirby-West U

Details

"Tutankhamun: The Golden King and the Great Pharaohs"

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

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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.

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.

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.)

Other Tut galleries include blown-up in-situ photographs of the objects in Tutankhamun's tomb, which are pretty interesting. Meanwhile, a close-up image of the show's lovely tiny "canopic coffinette," used on a lot of press materials, is a little misleading. It was sized to hold the king's stomach but looks like the life-size golden coffin that housed the mummy, which isn't in the show.

But I'll give up the flashy, voted-most-popular artifacts for the stuff like the wooden bed found in the tomb, one possibly used in life. It's still whitewashed after 3,000 years, its woven surface of reeds still intact. It's a touching and personal thing from someone long dead. It's an insight into the mundane humanity of a king who died as a teenager and, 3,000 years hence, has been marketed and merchandised beyond all imagining.

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2 comments
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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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