King Tutankhamun’s visage looms large over the entrance to OMSI. It’s a fitting introduction to the most famous pharaoh in history. In death, King Tutankhamun has been made larger than life despite being a minor player in history himself. The boy king was at one time something of a “lost Pharaoh,” before the rediscovery of his tomb. In this regard, the exhibit from Premier Exhibitions isn’t really about Tutankhamen. Instead, it’s about the discovery of his tomb and the contents thereof.
Even before entering the featured exhibits hall, it’s clear that OMSI and Premier Exhibitions have invested a lot of time and effort into the exhibit. The pillars of OMSI’s foyer are decorated with hieroglyphs like the columns of Luxor. Several beautiful and informative wall-sized exhibits are set up around the entrance to the exhibit. So without even having to pay the extra cost to see the exhibit proper, a guest at OMSI can learn about the timeline of Ancient Egypt and the House of Thebes, the Rosetta Stone, and read through a brief biography of both Howard Carter and his patron Lord Carnarvon. The outer exhibit also helps to explain some of the important of Tutankhamun and his place in Egyptian history.
Most popular histories of Egypt make Tutankhamun out to be something of a footnote in the history of Egypt and his own dynasty (the 18th Dynasty of the New Kingdom). But in fact, he’s something of a pivot point for Egyptian history. Tutankhamun was the grandson of Amenhotep III one of the richest and most powerful pharaohs to ever live. Amenhotep expanded Egyptian borders as far north as modern Syria. What’s more, his father Akhenaten is an extremely important figure in the history of Egypt. To call Akhenaten controversial is an understatement. The man took power at the height of what should’ve been a golden age for Egypt. But Akhenaten made one huge, and frankly disastrous decision: he turned his back on the cults. The various religious cults of Ancient Egypt were an integral part of life at every level of society. They were essentially state-funded institutions that provided for the people in various means including administering the kingdom. In exchange, the cults recognized the Pharaoh as a literal god in his own right. This created a feedback loop: the cults gave the Pharaoh legitimacy and in exchange they were granted the authority to aid in the administering of the kingdom. This authority often included their own cities, for instance. Akhenaten broke this balance of power by implementing what was at the time an extremely innovative idea to Ancient Egypt and the ancient world as a whole: monotheism.
Normally, the Pharaoh was associated with the deity of Amun, one of the chief, patriarchal deities in Egyptian Mythology. But Akhenaten took as his patron, a new deity called The Aten, a solar deity. Aten was a radical departure in the depiction of Egyptian deities, appearing as a simple solar disc instead of the traditional animal headed human figure. Prior to conversion, Akhenaten had been named Amenhotep IV but he changed his name in order to further align himself with this new deity which was possibly of his own creation. What followed could only be called a massive consolidation of power as Akhenaten worked to spread the monotheistic Atenism and defund most of the religious cults in the process. He also built a new capital city in the desert (which he named after himself), and relocated his entire household away from the traditional capital in Thebes. This was something of a grand gesture since the Pharaohs of the 18th Dynasty were called The House of Thebes. Agents of the pharaoh even went so far as to deface older hieroglyphics referring to Amun or other deities and replaced them with references to Akhenaten’s solar disc. Whether all of this was done out of genuine religious fervor or as a political power move to reclaim power from the cults has been the subject of scholarly debate for many years but it continues to make Akhenaten one of the most interesting figures in classical history. Most of this information is covered in the free section of the exhibit for what it’s worth but I would be reminisce if I didn’t take this time to shine a spotlight on one of my favorite controversial figures from history.
Eventually, Akhenaten passed and with him, almost every trace of Atenism began to die out. His heir was his young son, Tutankhaten. In a show of faith and to realign the House of Thebes with the cults, the boy changed his name upon his ascension to Tutankhamun effectively reclaiming the pharaonic connection to Amun. After this, Tutankhamun brought his family back to the city of their namesake and ruled for several years. In the ninth year of his rule, Tutankhamun died. Though the exact reason behind his passing has never been confirmed, a popular theory (and the one put forward by the creators of the exhibit) is that he died in a chariot accident at the age of 18. Tutankhamun was buried in a tomb in the Valley of the Kings. The tomb itself was probably purchased from a senior court official who’d purchased the plot for himself. Similarly, the pharaoh’s canopic jars (containing his vital organs) and coffin were probably acquired from other sources since the king was so young at his passing. After his burial, there would be at least one incident of tomb robbing but for the most part, history forgot about King Tut. At least until, the hero of the new exhibit arrived.
As I’ve said elsewhere, it’s important for a museum exhibit to have a strong narrative through-line. Some exhibits struggle to find their story. In fact, the previous Featured Exhibit at OMSI, Robot Revolution struggled with this and was more or less just a collection of hands-on displays of robots and what they could perform. In contrast, The Discovery of King Tut has an extremely strong narrative element and it works in the exhibit’s favor. The true protagonist of the exhibit isn’t the namesake Pharaoh but his discoverer, Howard Carter. Carter was a largely self-taught archaeologist who worked at the height of the field’s popularity from the turn of the century into the 1920s. Famously, Carter was considered to be something of a tragic figure during his search for the tomb of Tutankhamun. By the age of 25 he’d been recognized as a rising star in the burgeoning field of Egyptology and had been appointed as the Chief Inspector of the Egyptian Antiquities Service. Despite having one of the highest positions in the field, Carter apparently didn’t see eye to eye with his European contemporaries and infamously got into a brawl with several drunk French Tourists. Details are sketchy but it’s generally accepted that the tourists were harassing several local guards and Carter stepped in to stand up for his men. The argument escalated and Carter “gave his men permission to defend themselves.” Carter may have even thrown a few punches himself. Afterwards, Carter refused to apologize to the Europeans and resigned his post rather than face discipline.
Unfortunately, this left Carter without the network to properly pursue his career. He became a freelance tour guide for antiquarians while researching the tomb of a fabled lost pharaoh that came between Akhenaten and his presumed successor, Ay. But a dig on the scale that Carter was after would require a wealthy patron. Luckily it just so happened that George Herbert, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon was in Egypt recuperating from a car crash. The two men couldn’t be more different, one was a bookish intellectual and the other liked horse racing and fast cars but they formed a fast friendship and Carnarvon became Carter’s patron for decades. The pair sunk entire fortunes into the desert sands, with the knowledge that Lord Canarvon would personally claim some small piece of the find for himself. Despite numerous setbacks and facing bankruptcy, Carter soldiered on until one day when the dig’s youngest member, a water boy discovered a series of steps cut into the desert rock. The steps lead down to a dry mud wall that was labeled with the cartouche (signature) of the boy king Carter had been seeking. Again, the vast majority of this is covered in a movie that precedes the rest of the exhibit. The movie ends with Carter breaching the tomb and delivering his most famous quote. When asked if he could see anything by Lord Canarvon, Carter famously replied: “Yes. I see wonderful things.”
And here The Discovery of King Tut properly begins. The first segment of the exhibit is a guided tour of the tomb, exactly as it was when it had been unearthed. It’s worth noting that the entire exhibit is made up on high quality replicas. At first, this may seem like a disappointment. In the past, many pieces from King Tut’s tombs have traveled the world and been on display in a variety of famous museums. However, in recent years the Egyptian Department of Antiquities has become very protective of these and other relics. With that out of the way, I can say that I actually prefer the replicas for this kind of exhibit. The appeal of The Discovery of King Tut isn’t the relics themselves though may of the replicas are legitimately breathtaking. Instead, the real draw of this exhibit lies in the presentation. The three chambers are presented exactly as they were when Carter discovered them. Hence why the antechamber is filled with the wreckage of broken chariots, tomb robbers had probably smashed the ornamental vehicles and stolen the most valuable pieces of them. The goal of the exhibit is to put you in Carter’s shoes and watch in awe as the tomb opens before you. The first three displays of the exhibit are suitably cramped and crowded with things, exactly as they were in real life. From there, the exhibit becomes like an unfolding puzzle box. A perfect example of this can be found in the four shrines that contained the pharaoh’s sarcophagus.
The four shrines were somehow built around around each other and presented an extremely difficult challenge for the archaeologists. The exhibit is able to show visitors the shrines in two forms. Firstly, they’re shown as they were when first opened, stacked on top of each other like Russian nesting dolls. Then, the exhibit extends further back, illuminating each individual shrine in its unique glory. The shrines are surrounded by placards explaining the significance of the hieroglyphs on every side. Each shrine tells parts of an intricate story about the Egyptian afterlife. Given that the end point of the story is the stone box containing the pharaoh, visitors get to see and appreciate the reverence with which the Ancient Egyptians regarded their vision of the afterlife. This would’ve been impossible if the exhibit relied on the real thing. Instead, the exhibit designers are able to take advantage of their highly skilled artists to create a more full and complete picture of the shrines, both as Carter and Canarvon saw them and in their full glory.
After the initial narrative portion of the exhibit, guests are guided upstairs to a far more open section. The second floor of The Discovery of King Tut focuses on the relics themselves and is broken down into a variety of subsections. One feature focuses on the various charms and pieces of jewelry that the mummy was wearing when he was uncovered. Another area is dedicated to the small fleet of model ships that were found with the Pharaoh. A gorgeous replica of Tutankhamun’s funerary mask is placed above and apart from the rest of the exhibit as is a recreation of one of the chariots buried with the boy king. My personal favorite display on the second floor is dedicated the Shabtis, tiny funerary figures that were buried along with the pharaoh. Shabtis perfectly illustrate the Ancient Egyptian image of the afterlife. To the Egyptians, life after death was just a continuation of life prior to expiration. This extended to growing and harvesting one’s own food. But I mean, come on, who wants to tend to crops after you’ve died? So the Egyptians included in their tombs little statues that they called Shabtis (translated to Those Who Answer or more simply The Answerers) which were expected to do work in the place of their masters. Tutankhamun’s tomb contained a variety of Shabtis and even included an exact replica of the pharaoh himself presumably to supervise or maybe just attend godly meetings that he wished to avoid.
Why does any of this matter? The Discovery of King Tut is, at first glance a celebration of men and events from nearly a century prior. It doesn’t even have the good will to include the authentic relics. But as I was leaving the exhibit proper, I saw something that made me realize exactly why The Discovery of King Tut is an important fixture in OMSI. Just outside the main exhibit, on the second floor, is the “Young Explorer’s Society Hall of Explorers.” I don’t know if the Hall of Explorers is the work of Premier Exhibitions or OMSI but whoever implemented the idea deserves all the praise in the world. The exhibit displays six photos and biographies of famous men and women of color that have been instrumental in the field of archaeology. Men like John Wesley Gilbert, born a slave or Li Ji, the “grandfather of Chinese archaeology,” are celebrated alongside women like Zellia Nuttall, the first in her field to decipher Aztec poetry. The message is clear. While Carter and his patron might’ve been British white men, everyone and anyone can be an explorer or make the next great discovery. As I looked at the pictures and read these bios of men and women I’d never heard of before, I thought of the dozens of children and young teenagers I’d seen in the exhibit. I saw these boys and girls looking agog at the wonders of King Tut’s tombs. I saw them looking between the exhibit and their parents as if to say “did I just see that?!” It was inspiring.
I’ve always had a soft spot for the field of Egyptology and its Golden Age. That’s not to say that I don’t recognize some of the somewhat iffy aspects of the time period, which saw white men and women exerting colonial influence over the deserts of Egypt. After all, King Tutankhamun is the only pharaoh who has been allowed to remain in his own tomb. The rest have been moved elsewhere by the forces of history. Beyond that, I’ve always admired that the era was defined by a combination of actual academic rigor and amateur zeal. Howard Carter himself was largely self-taught and initially found work at dig sites as an artist. Even as a young kid, some of my first memories of learning in general are of reading books about mummies and the pyramids. Moving into the modern day, I know way too much about subjects like the Egyptian pantheon, funerary texts and the differences between the Old and New Kingdom. I also may or may not have very strong opinions about how we discuss all these things and present them in popular culture, but that’s another matter. Nothing has ever come of my own amateur fascination with Egyptology (yet) but it has always been a guiding light in my own self-education. Learning about pyramids, mummies and pharaohs inspired me from a young age to study history, mythology and even literature. And as the figurehead of the field, that is King Tut’s last legacy in this world. In death, King Tutankhamun has become a symbol for discovery and our collective education. And it’s my greatest hope that this exhibit at OMSI will serve to inspire the next generation of academics and adventurers.