Where's the Mummy?

The star never appears, but the show keeps packin' 'em in

Back in December, New Times called the Museum of Art's King Tut exhibit — "Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs" — beautiful but stingy. But we didn't have evidence about the things that happen around the show. Now, two months in, what is the experience all about, its promise and reality?

What you're expecting to see, after you drop your $30, is the golden death mask, coffin, or other such booty from the first Tut tour in the 1970s. After all, that's what's on all the advertising. Or is it?

That famous golden face is on signs hanging along Fort Lauderdale's Broward Boulevard and the gigantic banner at the museum's entrance. It's on pamphlets advertising a special kid's adventure at Sawgrass Mills — "Be the Boy King at Wannado City!" — whatever that scarily entails. What you think is Tut's coffin is everywhere. Yet, it isn't really what you think it is. But more on this later.

The crowning moment comes in the gift shop.
Colby Katz
The crowning moment comes in the gift shop.

The show is like Disney World, in more ways than one, filled with high expectations, some manipulation, and ultimately a well-stocked gift shop.

Just like in the Magic Kingdom, the first thing you'll do is queue up. You'll start your tour locked in a crowd-control room watching a portentous 90-second video with cameo narration by actor Omar Sharif — "A young boy, just 9 years old, ascended the throne. His name was Tutankhamun," Omar says — before you pass along into the exhibit.

Yes, Tut was a mere Wannado-demographic 9 years old when he assumed power, reigning only a decade before dying at 19. And that's why we're here, to see his death cache. Of the thousands of objects found in Tut's and the other 89 tombs littering Egypt's Valley of the Kings, only about 130 are on view. And of what we see, we're fascinated by the glitter. Crowds encircle scarab-laced necklaces or a golden shrine container the size of an EZ Bake oven. "Yes, that's real gold," a father reassures his tot, even though window-shopping at Zales would have been a much cheaper afternoon for them.

The most interesting stuff, actually, is the accessories that provide insight into daily life in ancient Egypt — a gilded leather dog collar, a copper rattle, a silver trumpet, and wooden chests and chairs that would probably disintegrate within minutes if exposed to South Florida's humid air.

What you hear is the buzzing of ghost whispers from tour headphones. If you get bored listening, you can play games. My brother spent his tour checking display box temperature and humidity gauges — "Yep, still about 72 degrees and 50 percent."

The tour, of course, is a journey to find its center — Tut's mask or coffin, whose photo is seemingly posted all over town. But what does that photo really depict? To find out, look inside the back cover of the exhibit's commemorative book and you'll read the fine-print description of its front cover: "Coffinette for the Viscera of Tut."

The coffinette, about the size of Yao Ming's Nike shoebox, held Tut's dried-out liver, and indeed it is at the tour's center. But there's no crowd around it. Although it's presumably why we stood in line, most folks walk right on by without registering the connection. Granted, there's a reason why the big 1970s tour stuff isn't here — the Egyptian government isn't letting it out anymore. But maybe there should be a big neon arrow pointing down toward the coffinette: "Here's what you came for."

In the end, just like Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean, you're dumped into the gift shop to occasionally hear "Was that all?" There, you can buy your own copy of the coffinette (at $89.95, is Tut a bargain paperweight?). Among the other loot for sale — posters, T-shirts, inflatable "mini-mummies," and gaudy Egypt-inspired jewelry — sits one, and only one, inspired item. It's a tissue-box cover shaped like Tut's mask (price? $29.95) with the tissues coming out of his nose, just like how, you learned, Tut's brains were sucked out with a long metal hook during his embalming.

Despite the exhibit's being King Tut Lite — like seeing the Grateful Dead sans Jerry Garcia — pregnant questions result. What the hell is unguent (is it snortable?), and why did they keep it in a calcite vessel? For that matter, what the hell is calcite?

It's fascinating to learn about ancient burial practices, such as the removal of organs, like giblets from a Thanksgiving turkey, which were then mummified and placed in separate containers to be protected by the Four Sons of Horus. You also learn about forensic anthropology. How did Tut die? Despite mummy x-ray exams in the '60s and '70s and a CT Scan last year, it's not clear. He had several fractures — a broken ankle and ribs and a severe knee break — that may have come from an accident or, more intriguing, a battle.

But those clever scientists were able to perform a forensic reconstruction of how the Boy King might have looked. He was about five-foot-six and, based on the reconstruction, looked like an androgynous club kid who today might be found dancing backup for Christina Aguilera.

The most interesting historical insights reside in a room devoted to Tut's likely father, Akhenaten, who had ushered in a revolutionary social and religious period. "I like the big-headed dude over there" was said about Akhenaten's statue by my cohort's hip-hopper guy, himself wearing a gold and diamond cross with a much higher bling factor than anything seen in the display cases.

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