Controversy over a touring exhibition of Tut's treasures from Egypt to Los Angeles

Nevine El-Aref , Saturday 3 Mar 2018

A touring exhibition of treasures from the tomb of the ancient Egyptian boy king Tutankhamun is sparking debate among archaeologists

Some of the objects to travel to Los Angeles exhibition

As treasures from the funerary collection of the ancient Egyptian boy king Tutankhamun prepared to set off on a touring exhibition of the United States this month, starting at the California Science Centre in Los Angeles, a campaign has been launched against the tour, raising fears that Tutankhamun’s curse may have spread to archaeology. 

The Egyptian Antiquities Task Force, a Facebook group, this week launched a petition addressed to President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi asking for the exhibition to be halted on the grounds that it could constitute a threat to the artefacts involved. It was “a breach of the antiquities law” and was not worth the effort since the exhibition would have a “low income”, the group said.

Monica Hanna, a professor at the Arab Academy for Science, Technology and Maritime Transport in Cairo who is leading the protest campaign, said that although she was not against exhibitions abroad, the Ministry of Antiquities needed to follow all the articles of the antiquities law before the approval of any touring exhibition.

Hanna described the “King Tut: Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh” exhibition as a threat to the 166 objects scheduled to travel to Los Angeles, the first stop on its seven-year tour.

“The exhibition breaks the antiquities law because it has been organised with a private company and not an international museum or scientific institution as the law stipulates,” Hanna said. She said that the company concerned could also be considered a potential threat to the artefacts because it had organised the “Quest for Immortality” touring exhibition in the early 2000s when a dice from a senet game, an ancient Egyptian board game, had been lost, leading to a law suit. 

The objects scheduled to travel consisted of unique items from Tutankhamun’s collection such as his gold sarcophagus, she said. This was another contravention of the law, since it stipulates that travelling objects should be duplicates and not unique ones, she said. 

From the economic point of view, Hanna said the exhibition was also a poor deal since it would bring in little revenue over seven years. “It is only $50 million, which means that the income would be $166 per day,” she said. “Is this enough, given the importance of the ancient Egyptian civilisation and antiquities,” she asked, adding that similar objects loaned from the Louvre Museum in Paris to the new Louvre in Abu Dhabi had been charged at €45 million.

“How can the Ministry of Antiquities allow 166 pieces from Tutankhamun’s collection to travel when the Grand Egyptian Museum [GEM] is about to open at the end of this year and in which the Tutankhamun collection will be a major part,” Hanna wondered.  

In response, former minister of antiquities Zahi Hawass said that “all these are unfounded claims” in an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly. He said that the exhibition did not break the antiquities law as the objects were not unique examples, as had been claimed. They were all duplicates, he said.

“The gold sarcophagus is not among the objects. The one that will travel is a gilded 40cm symbolic sarcophagus of the sort that has many duplicates in the Tutankhamun collection,” Hawass said. He added that the exhibition’s revenue would exceed $10 million in each country it visited.

The “Quest for Immortality” exhibition had been organised by a different company, he said.

Hawass described the exhibition as an important promotional campaign for Egypt and for Ancient Egyptian civilisation. It would feature in the international headlines and on street and other advertising, he said, helping to drive home the message that Egypt was safe for foreign visitors.  

Supervisor-General of the GEM Tarek Tawfik told the Weekly that the exhibition would not affect the GEM display, as the objects concerned were all duplicates. The Tutankhamun collection contains 400 ushabti figurines of the same shape and size as those in the exhibition. If a dozen such figures travelled, this would not affect the GEM exhibition, he said, especially as the Tutankhamun collection contains some 5,200 pieces. 

Minister of Antiquities Khaled El-Enany told the Weekly that the exhibition did not contain any unique objects from the collection. It did not include Tutankhamun’s gold sarcophagus, mask, throne, shrine or Anubis statue, as had been claimed.  

One iconic item in the exhibition is a Ka statue, a wooden guardian statue with gilded head dress and skirt, of which the collection has two, while the other items are ushabti figurines, head-rests, boxes and jewellery, he said.

“We will never be negligent about our heritage,” El-Enany said, adding that half of the original list of requested items had been rejected by the ministry’s Foreign Exhibitions Committee, the official negotiator for travelling exhibitions under the antiquities law, for various reasons.

The ministry had followed all appropriate legal procedures, he said, and the objects had been approved by the committee, the Supreme Council of Antiquities, and the cabinet. The US Embassy had provided appropriate financial guarantees, and the collection had been insured for $800 million. It would be accompanied by an officer from the Tourist and Antiquities Police, a restorer and a curator, he said.  

El-Enany said that the revenue from the exhibition was estimated at $50 million for each country involved, and there would also be a percentage paid on the number of tickets and souvenirs sold. The ministry would benefit from 10 per cent of the value of the items sold, as well as $1 for each visitor above 400,000, reaching $4 per visitor at 700,000 visitors.

According to the California Science Centre in Los Angeles Website, tickets for the Tutankhamun exhibition are selling out. “The revenues are from only one leg of the exhibition and the same policy will be applied for every stop,” El-Enany told the Weekly.

The other legs include the Museum of Science and Industry at the Parc de la Villette in Paris, the Saatchi Museum in London, the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, the Sydney Museum in Australia, the National Museum in South Korea, the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, the Field Museum in Chicago, the Muri Art Centre in Tokyo and the Osaka Museum of Art.

Two other exhibitions abroad are also scheduled to open in March. The first is in Canada and concerns the Fatimid period in Egypt, organised with the Aga Khan Foundation, and the second is in St Louis in the US and concerns “Egypt’s sunken treasures”.

Elham Salah, head of the Museums Sector at the ministry, told the Weekly that in collaboration with the ministries of higher education and communication and information technology, the Ministry of Antiquities would provide a print-out of every object in the Tutankhamun exhibition. 

The “King Tut: Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh” exhibition will be inaugurated on 24 March and will run until January 2019.

California Science Centre President Jeff Rudolph said the exhibition would use multimedia displays to stimulate interest in the sciences related to archaeology. Visitors will also learn how the scientific analysis of the Pharaoh’s 3,000-year-old mummy had revealed new information about his health and lineage, as well as how cutting-edge archaeological tools were assisting in discovering tombs and analysing existing ones in ways never before imagined.

The exhibition will feature nine distinct experiential galleries and an array of 3D visuals, digital content, 360-degree theatrical manifestations, and custom soundscapes in an engaging audio-guided tour, Rudolph commented.

This article was originally published in Al-Ahram Weekly


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