The “Golden Age of the Pharaohs” is about to collide with the Golden Age of Marketing at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
King Tut’s tomb relics last came to L.A. in 1978 in the landmark “Treasures of Tutankhamen” exhibition. It toured seven U.S. cities from 1976 to 1979, drawing 8 million visitors -- more than a million to the county museum alone.
That record is yet to be broken, but organizers of “Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs” -- kicking off a four-city tour today at LACMA -- predict that the ’78 tally may soon be ancient history.
You just can’t beat the brand name of Egypt’s most famous Sarcopha-Guy. And those in the museum world acknowledge that ancient Egypt, mummies, coffins and the treasures of the tomb (along with dinosaurs and Impressionist painters) are always among their greatest hits.
Tut II is predicted to have the blockbuster appeal of a mummified dinosaur (one who paints like Van Gogh). Even so, backers of what looks to be the most expensive touring art exhibition ever brought to the United States have launched a carefully orchestrated marketing campaign to make sure the boy king wins a hearty welcome during his five-month L.A. stay.
To that end, the museum will offer lectures, including one from the secretary general of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities; books; special programs for kids; and, of course, gifts that range from the silly (an “official” candy of King Tut) to the sublime (i.e., so bad it’s good: a Tut tissue box from which the hankie exits beneath the nostrils).
“I hate to say this, but it’s very similar to how we would go market another entertainment event, like a major awards show or sporting event,” says Tim Leiweke, president of AEG, the sports and entertainment presenter that developed Staples Center, among other venues, and is financing the exhibition.
So what accounts for the public fascination with Tut and all things pharaonic?
Egyptologists say the universal appeal of a king who died at 19 rests not in science but in mystery. Recent CT scans appear to have ruled out a theory that Tut may have been murdered, yet his death remains unexplained. (Images from the scans will be part of the new Tut exhibition, but the king’s actual mummy will remain in Egypt.)
“We still don’t know what killed Tut,” says Carol A. Redmount, associate professor of Near Eastern studies and curator of Egyptian archeology at UC Berkeley. “Plus there’s the ‘body’ thing in pop culture right now, the ‘CSI effect.’ You have a real body to go with the mystery, and it’s lasted for 3,500 years.”
Redmount says the enticing notion of buried treasure from tombs also plays into almost everyone’s childhood fantasies. “There is this whole idea of fabulous wealth of a kind that for the most part we don’t see in this day and age. It appeals to the little kid in all of us. Wouldn’t it be cool to find that?”
Willeke Wendrich, associate professor of Egyptian archeology in the department of Near Eastern languages and cultures at UCLA, concurs that a big part of the attraction is the “mummy factor,” based on the ancient Egyptian assumption that you can take it with you.
Death, in modern American society, is viewed differently than it was in ancient Egypt, where “a lot of effort in daily life was given to making sure that you had a proper afterlife,” she says.
And because the treasures were buried, they are remarkably well preserved.
“The real nice stuff is what we find in the tombs,” Wendrich added.
The new Tut exhibition marks the first time in 26 years that objects from the tomb of Tut will be seen outside Egypt. The show, which already has toured Switzerland and Germany, will stop in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Chicago and Philadelphia after Los Angeles. Shows in other cities abroad are being negotiated, for a tour that may run for up to five years, Leiweke says.
The show includes more objects this time around, 114, according to LACMA, which is about twice as many as in the first show, with about 12 pieces making a return visit. Roughly half of the exhibition is made up of items from 18th Dynasty (1555 to 1305 BC) tombs other than Tut’s, which housed the remains of pharaohs Amenhotep II and Tuthmosis IV, as well as Tut’s great-grand-mummy Tuyu and great-granddad Yuya. All of the objects are 3,000 to 3,500 years old.
“This time, not only is he bringing his treasures, he’s bringing his family,” says the exhibition’s national curator, David Silverman, who also was a curator for the 1970s Tut show.
From a marketing perspective, more than the preferred spelling of the king’s name has changed since Tutankhamun’s first visit.
Chris Hansen, LACMA’s senior vice president and chief marketing officer , says the museum community’s holier-than-advertising attitude toward marketing seems to have changed over time: “I think museums as a category are less shy about it. We used to be a little bit like doctors and lawyers -- you’re not supposed to do it, right?”
Marketing for the ‘70s exhibition was handled by New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, which organized the tour. This time around, two commercial entities, AEG and Arts and Exhibitions International, are backing the show, cooperating with National Geographic and Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities to bring the artifacts to the United States.
In return for allowing its artifacts -- a valuable tourist attraction -- to travel outside the region, Egypt will receive millions of dollars up front as well as a portion of the exhibition’s proceeds, which it plans to use to construct new museums and help pay for preservation and conservation of archeological sites.
Despite the nod to study and conservation, some critics decry the deal making between a nonprofit art museum and commercial entertainment backers they see as perhaps more concerned with the bottom line than scholarship. Ticket prices range from $15 to $30, a record for LACMA.
“Tut” tickets went on sale March 3, and advertising started even earlier, LACMA’s Hansen says. “I think we were seven months out, and that’s not the norm -- we don’t find that people are interested in calendaring or purchasing tickets that far out.”
At LACMA, after the top-ranked “Treasures of Tutankhamen,” 1999’s “Van Gogh’s Van Goghs: Masterpieces From the Van Gogh Museum Amsterdam” and 1984’s “A Day in the Country: Impressionism and the French Landscape,” were the second- and third-best attended shows, respectively. Although the Impressionist exhibitions had broad appeal, Hansen says that recent market research promises that “Tut II” should have an even broader appeal, because it’s a family attraction.
The audience will almost certainly include sixth-graders from California’s public schools; the study of ancient cultures, including Egypt, is part of the standard sixth-grade curriculum.
LACMA’s education department is providing an exhibition-related program of study to local schools -- tailored to the sixth-grade curriculum but adaptable for all elementary grades. The teaching guides include an exhibition overview, a map of Egypt, pre-visit discussion questions and activities, and reproductions of objects from the collection. The materials are selected to present broad themes in Egyptian art, according to the museum. Already, 394 area schools -- public, private and parochial -- have booked tours of “Tut.”
The exhibition also is enjoying another source of free publicity, this one unavailable to promoters in 1978: the World Wide Web. According to Egyptologists and museum officials, the Internet is opening a virtual sarcophagus of information to potential new audiences, some of whom weren’t even born during the first tour.
Brian Harris, director of sales and marketing for Arts and Exhibitions International, says that in early March, just a few days after “Tut” tickets went on sale, the National Geographic website www.kingtut.org received more than 2 million page hits in 24 hours.
As a point of reference for King Tut’s sell-ability, LACMA need look no further than Orange County, where the ongoing exhibition “Mummies: Death and the Afterlife in Ancient Egypt ... Treasures From the British Museum” has been setting attendance records at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana.
“I’ve often said that if I could start a museum from scratch, it would be diamonds, dinosaurs and mummies -- those are the three home runs in the museum world,” says Peter Keller, president of the Bowers Museum. “I used to work at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, and we had one mummy stuck in the corner of the foyer, and much to our disappointment, it was the most popular item in the entire exhibit.”
Leiweke says “Tut” may borrow a little something from another show dealing with the end of life, if not the afterlife: “Body Worlds,” the recent exhibition of preserved bodies at the California Science Center. The museum stayed open around the clock to accommodate crowds during the final days of the run. Leiweke says LACMA may do the same.
“We’re expecting a huge rush at the end because you’ll never see it again in your lifetime.”
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Ankhs for the memories
It should come as no surprise that “Tutankhamun” has spawned an assortment of products, available at LACMA’s shops or on its website.
John Norman, president of Arts and Exhibitions International, says the museum shops will carry a mix of things, some created for the exhibition and others already on the market, including the mug-tie-umbrella sort, jewelry with the requisite ankhs, videos and books.
Some items that will be available during the Los Angeles visitation of Tut:
The “official candy of King Tut,” a 1-pound box of See’s chocolates ($15.60) bearing the famous face from a Tut coffinette on its golden lid, will be available at the LACMA gift shops and See’s candy stores. The original coffinette was used to store Tut’s mummified liver; the candy box will contain fresh assorted truffles.
Tut Kleenex Box
It features the same coffinette face as the candy, $22
Makes packing for the afterlife that much easier, $30.
Egyptian Symbols Rubber Stamp Kit
Impress your friends with hieroglyphic graffiti, $19.95.
Color Your Own Ancient Egypt T-Shirt
With the aid of colorful paints, including metallics in copper and gold, create a T-shirt inspired by the ancient Egyptians, $18.95.
Isis and Osiris Egyptian
Osiris, the eldest son of Nut, married his sister Isis, had a son named Horus and was killed by his brother Set, the lord of evil ... the family story is complicated, but it makes for a colorful umbrella, $30.
After a cold swim, you can mummify your body in this cozy terry wrap, $35.
The gold-and-black hats bear images of cobras, $35. In children’s and adult sizes.
The Ancient Egypt Toob
From Tut’s tomb to Tut’s plastic tube of miniature Egyptiana, including pyramids, scarabs, sphinx and assorted gods and goddesses, $10.
Mummy, may I?
The broad interest in Tut is not only commercial but also educational. Here are some of the offerings:
For Little Pharaohs
LACMA is setting up a special kids’ shop called the Coloring Book adjacent to the exhibition. The museum also seems to be pushing hard to stir up interest in “The Pharaoh’s World,” a new installation at LACMA’s Boone Children’s Gallery that will be open on the same schedule as the Tut exhibition and have hands-on art and educational activities focusing on mummies, pharaohs and gods. “Imagine a mummy in the center of the room ... partially bandaged in linen with arms and fingers left for children to wrap!” reads a breathless announcement.
Other activities include playing a life-size version of the board game senet, found in Tut’s tomb, playing god, so to speak, by manipulating large magnets to mix and match the characteristics of Egyptian gods to create your own characters. Or play junior archeologist by unearthing objects scattered in the sand at a “dig table.” Using brushes and tools like those used by real archeologists, children can uncover objects that resemble items that were buried in ancient tombs.
Admission to “Pharaoh’s World” is free, although children 12 and younger must be accompanied by an adult.
A Remarkable Survey of the Egyptian Royal Mummy,” by Zahi Hawass, secretary general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, Egypt, at 1 p.m. Saturday in the Leo S. Bing Theater (sold out)
Conspicuous Consumption or Religious Belief?” by Kathlyn M. Cooney, a lecturer at Stanford University, at 2 p.m. July 10 in the Leo S. Bing Theater
From National Geographic
Artifacts for the exhibition were brought from Egypt with the aid of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities and National Geographic. To coincide with the exhibition, the National Geographic Society has published the books “Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs,” the “official” exhibition companion book, and a children’s book, “Tutankhamun: The Mystery of the Boy King,” both by Hawass.
This month’s issue of National Geographic magazine has as its cover story “The New Face of King Tut,” using data from the recent CT scan of the mummy to create a forensic reconstruction of the pharaoh. To pay a virtual visit to Tut’s burial chamber and examine the CT scans, go to www.ngm.com/tut.
On June 20, the National Geographic Channel will air an encore presentation of “King Tut’s Final Secrets,” also featuring findings from the forensic investigation.
The exhibition “Tut Unwrapped” -- more from the X-rays and more recent CT scans -- will be on display at the National Geographic Museum at Explorers Hall in Washington, D.C., from June 24 through Aug. 21.
For a variety of Egypt-related material in coming months, visit www.nationalgeographic.com.