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Adventure, archaeology & new technology mix as King Tut makes what may be last Houston visit

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Anubis, protector of the dead, guards the entrance to the underworld. From today to April 15, 2012, he guards the door to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston while King Tut is in town.

Over the next six months, Houstonians can have the rare treat of wandering the 12 galleries of Tutankhamun: The Golden King and the Great Pharaohs. The show is stocked with over 100 objects associated with King Tut, the boy pharaoh who took the world by storm in 1922 when Howard Carter discovered what some still call the greatest archaeological find ever.

At a press event for the exhibition, Mayor Annise Parker predicted that King Tut would have a huge impact on the city. “We anticipate this exhibit will bring in people from all over the state of Texas and beyond. The arts contribute greatly to the city of Houston’s bottom line, and this combination of art and history and mystery will be an absolutely unbeatable combination," she said.

 The final room of the exhibit displays data gathered by X-ray, CT scan, and DNA over decades and concludes that King Tut was the son of the royal iconoclast Akhenaten, who briefly introduced monotheism to a religious culture whose cosmology included countless gods. 

Houston is one of only a few cities to host Tutankhamun: The Golden King and the Great Pharaohs, along with Vienna, Atlanta, Denver, and Toronto.

What explains the continued thrill of King Tut? Habit, perhaps. Americans have been fed a steady diet of Egyptology, with two landmark tours in the 1960s and the 1970s. King Tut made his way to Houston, and to the MFAH, last in 1962. What’s changed since then? Quite a lot.

Many of the objects in the current show have never been shown in the U.S. and some predict these objects will never again leave Egypt. Mark Lach, senior vice president of co-sponsor Arts and Exhibitions International, however, insisted on their international scope. In front of representatives from the Supreme Council of Antiquities of the Arab Republic of Egypt, he said, “These objects don’t just belong to Egypt, they belong to the world.”

In 1962, visitors may not have been greeted by either the massive statue of Anubis outside or by the ultra-modern information center with CT-scanned images of King Tut’s body and smaller screens images displaying slices of the desiccated viscera of the boy king. The final room of the exhibit displays data gathered by X-ray, CT scan, and DNA over decades and concludes that King Tut was the son of the royal iconoclast Akhenaten, who briefly introduced monotheism to a religious culture whose cosmology included countless gods.

A who's who of Ancient Egypt

To enter the exhibit, one passes through an opening chamber with walls and lintels meant to approximate the feel of something ancient. A brief video, narrated by Harrison Ford, introduces the subject of the exhibit, and the first eight galleries were described by Lach as “Egyptology 101.”

For those unfamiliar with the ancient pharaohs, their royal culture, or their burial practices, these galleries will be informative. But first you’ll be stared down by a gorgeous, calcite statue of the seated Khafre, who lent his face also to the Sphinx. When I saw the Sphinx some years ago on a trip to Egypt, I was struck by how solid it seemed in spite of evident wear. Here I was impressed by the delicacy and elegance of the carving work, including cartouches spelling out his name.

 When I saw the Sphinx some years ago on a trip to Egypt, I was struck by how solid it seemed in spite of evident wear. Here I was impressed by the delicacy and elegance of the carving work, including cartouches spelling out his name. 

Just around the corner, a statue of Khafre’s son, Menkaure who built the third of the great pyramids at Giza, fared less well. Equally gorgeous, the statue lacked much of its arms, revealing the surprising texture of stone beneath the polished exterior.

The opening galleries are a who’s who of ancient Egyptian power: Thutmoses, Ramesses, Hatshepsut, Amenhopet, and others all rendered magnificently in alabaster, granodiorite, red granite, and even unbaked clay. Monumentality was one defense against death, and death is, of course, the guiding thread of the exhibit.  

The god Anubis played a role comparable to the Greek god Charon, the ferryman who guided the transition of souls between life and death. Charon required a coin of passage, while other trials beset any pharaoh seeking to enter the afterlife. And so a pharaoh, who was considered a living god, prepared elaborately for the journey, building and stocking great monuments with treasure and provisions to face the questions from Anubis, Osiris, and other gods of the dead.

This is perhaps the strangest thing about how we encounter the culture of ancient Egypt through shows like Tutankhamun: The Golden King and the Great Pharaohs. The culture seems oriented around death almost to the exclusion of life. Perhaps all ancient civilizations seem this way to a modern viewer because they are so remote. But the elaborate construction of sublime monuments coupled with the care with which objects destined to be sealed in tombs were made makes one wonder how important the living really are.

But there were almost chilling moments when the imprint of the living was unbelievably intense. One statue features the architect, tutor, and lover of Queen Hatshepsut, Senenmut, holding her daughter Princess Nefrure in the posture one expects from a loving mother. Similarly, the beautifully colored limestone statue of the steward Kai and his two children, both dwarfed by their father as they crouch next to his knees, was surprisingly moving as well.

I have wandered through the Great Pyramids of Giza, the temples of Luxor and Karnack, and beyond. I was consumed by the massive scale of what I saw. Having the chance to spend time, intimacy, and proximity with these objects was quite powerful for me.

Elsewhere, an odd sketch of another princess eating a duck, carved and painted on limestone, make the absent bodies feel eerily real. Even the elaborate care taken for Thutmose’s cat, who received mummification and a sarcophagus fit for king, seems oddly touching.

The final rooms

After this initial tour and a further room of gold and lapis treasures, the final rooms attend to King Tut himself, explaining his burial tomb and presenting objects from them as varied as ritual fans and leopard tokens. Some objects were golden treasures, others, like a bed and a chair, gradually warping wood that once held the body of King Tut.

The rooms are introduced by yet another film, this one narrated by a voice familiar to me from Forensic Files. Other television screens throughout the hall feature Zahi Hawass, who is perhaps the world’s most famous Egyptian archaeologist. I’ve watched him on so many shows on so many stations extolling the wonders of ancient Egypt.

If there’s anything that I wondered about as I wandered this exhibit also co-sponsored by National Geographic it was this: Was I wandering through museum galleries, a theme park, or a television program? This is perhaps the consequence of the intertwining of adventure, archaeology and Egyptology. I was seven when I saw Raiders of the Lost Ark and 20 when I saw Stargate. I’m part of this culture as well, but still I wonder how the objects would seem with all their glory revealed in a less programmed environment and "experience" oriented environment.

Some prefer Indiana Jones rocketing across the screen. Myself, I prefer the hush of ancient things.

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