Take a trip inside Tut's tomb

  • Article by: MARY ABBE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 4, 2011 - 3:57 PM

A new show brings ancient Egyptian history to life at the Science Museum of Minnesota.

What would King Tut do? The 9-year-old boy who became king more than 3,300 years ago faced turmoil not unlike the crisis that engulfed his country this month. People were angry and mystified by his father who, as pharaoh, had built a new capital city, started a new religion and even changed his name to Akhenaten in honor of a new god, Aten.

"They also were revolutionary times," said David Silverman, curator of "Tutankhamun: The Golden King and the Great Pharaohs," opening today at the Science Museum in St. Paul. "But King Tut seemed to go with the flow of the crowd in returning his country to the orthodoxy they seemed to want. He went back to the traditional beliefs and to Thebes, the previous capital in the south."

Those moves don't exactly certify Tut as a proto-member of the Twitter generation, but they suggest he had better political instincts than Egypt's recently deposed dictator.

That appeals to Silverman, an Egyptologist and University of Pennsylvania professor who has devoted much of his career to helping people understand ancient Egypt by taking them inside the mummy's tomb, as it were. For that he favors a multimedia approach using maps, posters, films, videos, lighting effects and even re-created elements to contextualize ancient objects. The St. Paul show, for example, includes a reproduction of the tent that archaeologist Howard Carter stayed in while excavating Tut's tomb, complete with a (taxidermied) canary, the pet bird the Egyptian workers believed brought them good luck.

"It's theatrical, but people love it," Silverman said. "What I wanted to do was to have an exhibition that would break down the barriers that sometimes exist between people and museums. The Science Museum here is one of the most audience-friendly museums I've ever seen; it really beckons to people."

Back in the 1970s, with a newly minted doctorate from the University of Chicago, Silverman worked on the legendary exhibition that infected the United States with Tutmania. The present show is even better, he thinks, because it has more of everything -- more history, more objects and photos, more interactive gizmos, more authentic atmosphere, and even more new research.

DNA studies, for example, have established that Tut's parents were probably siblings. They've also proven that two mummified infants found in his tomb were his daughters. And while the exact cause of his death is still uncertain, CT scans support the theory that it may have been caused by complications from a broken leg. His left leg was fractured just above the knee but showed no sign of healing, leading to speculation that the injury occurred just days before he died, possibly from an infection or accident that left no other trace.

Egyptian history

The 1970s Tut show had just 50 objects, all from the young pharaoh's tomb, and took a treasure-house approach that emphasized the pricey materials -- gold, alabaster -- provided for the ruler's afterlife. The new show also has 50 Tut objects, many of them not previously shown, plus 80 more artifacts spanning 3,000 years of Egyptian history, to provide context.

A dozen galleries unfold like a tour of ancient Egypt, starting with a film and a stroll up a miniature version of the causeway you would take to reach a pyramid. Then you encounter statues of key rulers including Khafre, who built the Great Sphinx, and Hatshepsut, a rare female pharaoh. Next you meet a royal family, tour the palace and see royal gifts and court-wares (including a stone toilet seat!). Statues and reliefs of scribes and other courtiers come next, followed by deities and a magnificent wooden coffin to explain burial practices. And since Egyptians believed their gods had skin and bones of gold, there's a gallery of golden jewelry, vessels and other artifacts, including a golden death mask of a post-Tut ruler.

Tomb chambers

Tut's tomb had four rooms, each re-created in the show and housing appropriate objects. They're followed by the exhibit's pièce de résistance, an extremely rare 10-foot-tall sculpture fragment depicting Tut's head and torso with much of its original paint intact.

"People don't know what an ancient tomb was like, so we've hinted at it with entrances similar to what they would have seen. And when they go into the burial chamber, they find the artifacts that were actually there in the same kind of space that Carter found them in," said Silverman.

In cooperation with Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, the show was organized by the National Geographic Society and Arts and Exhibitions International, an Ohio-based company that specializes in historical exhibitions. For the past five years AEI has had two Tut-related shows on the road, where they've been seen by more than 8 million people. Proceeds are helping to pay for a new Grand Egyptian Museum in Cairo; when it opens in five or six years, it will be the world's largest museum.

Much of ancient Egyptian life revolved around preparations for the afterlife, where serenity was assured by an ample supply of earthly necessities entombed with the deceased. Royalty even built mortuary temples where priests were expected to pray in perpetuity for the departed. That was not to be Tut's fate.

"Instead, his name is said every day around the world by someone who has seen an exhibition like this," Silverman said. "We are, in essence, carriers of his immortality."

mabbe@startribune.com • 612-673-4431

  • TUTANKHAMUN: THE GOLDEN KING AND THE GREAT PHARAOHS

    When: Feb. 18-Sept. 5.

    Where: Science Museum of Minnesota, 120 W. Kellogg Blvd., St. Paul.

    Tickets: $16-$30. 651-221-9444 or www.smm.org/tut.

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