Thu, Nov 08, 2007 - Page 15 News List

Blockbuster exhibition raises questions for museums

Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs is a blockbuster exhibition that feels more like an amusement theme park, which turns a profit and in the process turns off many

By Robin Mckie  /  THE GUARDIAN, LONDON

This 7m replica of Anubis, the jackal-headed god of the dead in Egyptian mythology, was carried by boat up the River Thames in central London.

PHOTO: AFP

A boiling hot day in Philadelphia and I am standing on the steps of the Franklin Institute, a big and stately science museum and the temporary host of what is currently the world's most successful touring exhibition: Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs. The exhibition is now in its final week and it shows: the treasures are about to be packed up again and taken to London where they will be displayed in the O2, a new exhibition space in what used to be the Millennium Dome at Greenwich in the east of the city.

Nearby is a sign that records, totalizer-style, the number of visitors so far. Today it reads, "1 million."

I go inside, hoping to escape the chaos; it's no better. A guard tells me that, this morning alone, they are expecting 500 schoolchildren. Is he exaggerating? No. A moment later the doors swing open and the first batch advances on us like a miniature army. These kids don't make my journey around the exhibition easy - especially since many of them have iPods with big microphones attached, into which they read aloud the notes that accompany the exhibits. It's maddening.

Used to the reverential quiet of the British Museum, it takes me a while to get used to this.

Since childhood I've been an Egypt nut and, yes, there are some wonderful things here: the gold diadem that was still on Tutankhamun's head when the tomb was opened; the lovely mirror case in the shape of an ankh that the king expected to use to gaze on his face in the afterlife. But today they leave me strangely unmoved. I stand in front of the coffinette for the viscera of Tutankhamun. It is made of gold, obsidian, rock crystal and glass but for me it might as well have been thrown together last week using model enamel and a few toilet rolls. The spirit of the theme park - queues, noise, spooky music - is upon me and I just can't shake it off.

The exhibition has been both a smash hit and a hefty disappointment since it first hit America in June 2005 (as well as Philadelphia, it traveled to Chicago, Los Angeles and Fort Lauderdale; after it closes in London next year it will go on to Dallas). "I believe we have set a new standard for the term 'blockbuster' by attracting nearly four million visitors in our four-city tour," said John Norman, president of Arts and Exhibitions International (AEI), the company behind the show (its partners are National Geographic and the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities). It is true that its Philadelphia leg, which eventually attracted just under 1.3 million visitors, is now the second most successful touring exhibition stop in US history (the most successful is still Treasures of Tutankhamun at the Field Museum, Chicago, in the 1970s). But it has not been without its critics - and not only on grounds of taste. Some visitors used the words "cheated" and "deceived" when they came to write their Internet reviews and blogs. "The exhibit[ion] was totally misrepresented," said one. "There were enough major omissions to raise some ethical questions," wrote another.

The focus of their ire was the marketing of the exhibition, which featured - as it does for the British end of the tour - what appeared to be the star of the show in the 1970s, the boy king's gold funerary mask. But this piece is now considered too fragile to leave Cairo, and what you see on the posters is the coffinette (a miniature coffin, used to store the King's liver). At a glance, however, you'd never know this, and finding out the truth later infuriated some.

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