Crowds Greet Return of the King at LACMA

Times Staff Writer

The boy king is back, and once again, gold is gleaming, cash registers are ringing and strangers are whispering in darkened rooms on Wilshire Boulevard.

“Look at that!” said Betty Markowitz, fixating on a winged serpent goddess.

“A golden dagger!” said Ross Chase, 7, of Pasadena, gazing into a dramatically lighted glass case.


“Oooh, misplaced comma,” said Angelica Nava, a 20-year-old classics major at Stanford, fixing her gaze on a wall caption.

This was all about Tut, even though the king himself was not in the house, nor was the gleaming, full-size funerary mask that wowed American museum-goers in the late 1970s. Amid a whiff of controversy over prices and profit-seeking, more than 110 Egyptian items from Tutankhamun’s tomb and time went on public display at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Thursday, and a sellout crowd of museum members showed up to marvel at the trappings of a monarchy more than 30 centuries old.

Despite admission prices that go up to $30 per nonmember adult on weekends -- the museum’s highest ever -- nearly 300,000 would-be visitors have bought advance tickets for “Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs.”

Museum officials said 300 visitors per hour made their way through the 17,000-square-foot show in the LACMA West building Thursday, admiring 11 galleries full of silver trumpets, wooden staffs, elaborate necklaces and the show’s signature piece, a golden “coffinette,” not quite 16 inches high, that once held the king’s liver.

Most visitors had signed on for the audio tour, so they filed quietly across the sand-colored carpet, listening to the tinny whisper of Omar Sharif’s earphone narration. The galleries were full but comfortable for most, though early visitors with time-specific tickets reported delays at the entrance.

Markowitz, a 54-year-old retiree from Los Angeles, said she found the rooms much less crowded than those in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, which she visited last year. LACMA spokeswoman Martha Donelan said the afternoon earthquake posed no problems.

Jim Williams, a 56-year-old architect from Lompoc, said he did find the exhibition “a little pricey. But it’s the chance of a lifetime. And it’s a big risk for the Egyptian government” letting the items leave the country. “In that context, it’s fair.”

Thursday’s visitors were all museum members, meaning most had paid at least $75 for an annual membership and another $20.50 for an adult admission. After Saturday, when LACMA opens the show to nonmembers, officials say they may step up the pace of admissions to 500 per hour.

The exhibition will continue through Nov. 15. LACMA officials say they hope to get more than 800,000 visitors and perhaps even match the record 1.2 million who came to the first Tut show at LACMA in 1978.

That last Tut show in this country -- a seven-city, three-year U.S. tour orchestrated by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York -- not only inspired a song on “Saturday Night Live” from comedian Steve Martin (who went on to serve on LACMA’s Board of Trustees from 1984 to 2004) but kicked off a new era of blockbuster shows in American museums.

This new Tut tour is different. To begin with, the last one carried a LACMA admission price of $2 (about $6, adjusted for inflation) and included that emblematic gold mask, which this time remains in Cairo, as does the mummified Tut himself. This show features 50 artifacts from Tut’s tomb, the rest from the same era, along with video imagery from recent CT scans of Tutankhamun.

Yet this tour, too, could be a sign of change in the museum trade. Unlike most museum exhibition tours, it’s being presented as a business venture by a for-profit company -- AEG, the entertainment company that’s behind Staples Center. AEG’s commercial cachet and insistence on stiff prices scared away New York’s Metropolitan this time and have drawn scorn from art critics and curators.

But LACMA’s leaders, betting that crowds would come and reassured that AEG was taking most of the financial risk, said yes. So did officials at the show’s next stops: Fort Lauderdale’s Museum of Art, the Field Museum in Chicago and the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. If AEG can make a healthy profit on its investment of roughly $40 million in the international tour, many expect others to follow.

More immediately, though, LACMA and its many partners -- AEG, National Geographic, the Egyptian government, Ohio-based Arts and Exhibitions International and national sponsor Northern Trust Corp. -- have crowds to manage, corporate parties to cater and merchandise to sell.

By late Wednesday, the show’s first 12 days had sold out and AEG’s president, Tim Leiweke, was pronouncing himself ecstatic. His company’s break-even point in Los Angeles is about 800,000, he said.

Leiweke has taken sniping from highbrows unimpressed by his company’s background as a presenter of rock concerts, but at a media preview a day before the opening, he seized on the situation as a source of one-liners.

First, he noted that the ancient nature of the personalities and objects involved makes the Tut show “very similar to a Rolling Stones tour.” Later, he merrily observed that “King Tut hasn’t come to us asking for just brown M&Ms.;”

Zahi Hawass, secretary general of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, took a similar playful tone in explaining the admission price. “We need to take money from your pockets,” Hawass said, “so we can restore the Egyptian monuments.” He estimated that Egypt would reap about $35 million from the tour, and spend it on improving its museums.

If the first-day crowd is any indication, LACMA will draw a few foreign visitors. Among Thursday’s browsers were Keith Tramer, a 35-year-old insurance broker from Stoughton, Canada, and his wife of five days, Leanne Tramer, 28. Filing out through the buzzing gift shop, Keith Tramer said he was pleased with Tut, but not overcome. “It’d be nice to see the actual sarcophagus or the masks,” he said, citing some of the items that Egyptians said were too delicate to travel.

Meanwhile, a group of protesters assembled for a few hours near the museum parking lot to complain about a contemporary artist’s portrait of Tut, based on CT scans, that is placed near the end of the show. Protester Legrand Clegg, who also serves as Compton’s city attorney, said the Caucasian look of the image’s features suggested racial bias.

Other visitors offered praise without qualification.

“The whole idea of antiquity, and how people lived in those days, is fascinating to me,” said Beatrice Steinberg, 91, who came by bus from Leisure World in Laguna Woods. Steinberg said she saw a similar exhibition in New York as a child, and traveled to Egypt in the 1970s.

“If you live long enough,” said Steinberg, “everything comes back.”