King Tutankhamun has a place in the hearts of people all over the world, and there is also such a thing as “Tutmania”. When the body of Tutankhamun left Egypt in 1976 for Washington DC, where an exhibition of 55 objects from the king’s tomb was to be exhibited for the first time, millions of Americans queued for hours to gain a ticket to see the golden boy king.
Newspaper reporters called the exhibition the hottest show in town, but this time not on Broadway but in a museum.
The United States was in the grip of Tutankhamun hysteria, or Tutmania, mummy madness, Tutankhamun glut, Egypt fever, even Pharaoh faucet. People in the streets of the six cities that the exhibition was shown in wore T-shirts saying things like “I love my mummy” and “strut-in with Tut.”
Steve Martin and the Toutuncommons (members of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band) had a hit record “King Tut” about all the people who had lined up to see him. In Los Angeles, one lady looking at the golden mask suddenly fainted and fell down. When she got up she was asked what had happened, and she replied she had seen Cary Grant standing next to Tutankhamun. She had been overcome by the charm of her two favourite people, she said.
Tutmania continued even after the Treasures of Tutankhamun tour ended in 2005. I went to the opening of the exhibition in Los Angeles with Egyptian actor Omar Sharif who was invited as a guest because he had narrated the introduction to the exhibition film.
One night, we were invited to have dinner at a restaurant in Los Angeles and when the dinner was over Sharif gave 20 euros to the parking attendant. This man looked at the euros as if he did not understand what this foreign money was, and he threw it on the ground. Sharif did not like the attendant’s attitude and tried to hit him. I was able to grab his hand and prevent him from touching the attendant, but once the attendant found out that he had nearly been struck by Sharif, he took Sharif to court.
The newspapers picked up on the story, and one of them even tried to blame it on the curse of Tutankhamun. The city was covered in photographs of the king and everything became “Tutified.”
On his cable television programme The Daily Show, presenter John Stewart imitated my accent and wore my hat. The Los Angeles Times even published a profile about me. The opening party at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art was amazing, complete with a red carpet, and of course many movie stars came to see the exhibition just like the stars of the 1970s had done.
At the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, the Exelon Company that had sponsored the exhibition organised a press conference and many people gave speeches.
The organisers spoke, and so did the exhibition sponsors. I was to speak last and take questions from the press. But the CEO of Exelon, John Rowe, could not attend because US president George Bush was in Chicago and they were having lunch together. So Rowe sent his assistant to the conference to deliver Rowe’s greeting, saying Rowe loved Egypt so much he had an Egyptian coffin in his office.
When I gave my speech I told the attendees that Egyptian antiquities should not be shown in homes and offices but belonged in museums. I could not accept someone having an ancient Egyptian coffin in his office even if he was a sponsor of the Tutankhamun exhibition. I said Tutankhamun would not have liked this and Rowe should give the coffin to the Field Museum as a gift if he wanted to continue to be a sponsor of the exhibition.
The speech stole the front pages and headlines in all the newspapers, even the Chicago Tribune, distracting attention from president Bush’s visit. Rowe did not think I was serious and refused to do as I had asked. The next day I wrote an official letter to the Field Museum and the exhibition organisers telling them to remove Exelon’s name from the exhibition. In the end Rowe agreed to give the coffin to the Museum.
The newspapers at the time wrote on their front pages that “two pharaohs fought” but the “real one had won.” This became good publicity for the exhibition.
There was also an exciting story that happened this month when I went to give a lecture about Tutankhamun. I had to give the lecture twice because the first lecture was sold out two hours after the announcement. The story of the poor restoration of the king’s golden mask upset everyone, and pictures on the Internet showed how the epoxy resin used had damaged the colour of the beard.
I could see tears in the eyes of people during the lecture tour. I told them and the press that someone had made a mistake and mistakes in restoration could happen anywhere. But the good news was that restoration work could now work miracles, and as an example I pointed to the tomb of Nefertari on the west bank of the Nile at Luxor.
This was damaged in the past by salt and poor restoration work, I said, but the Getty Conservation Institute had returned the tomb to its original appearance.
After I finished the last lecture and was accompanied by Mike, the director of the Museum, and John Schmid who was responsible for the publicity, a young girl started to run after us. She showed me a tattoo on her leg depicting the face of the boy king. I asked her why she had had the tattoo done, and she said she had been upset by the poor restoration of the king’s mask and she was in love with Tutankhamun.
She then asked me for a photograph. She was holding my book that has a cover photograph of the gold mask. After the photograph was taken she asked me to put it on Facebook and I agreed.
People all over the world liked the photograph because it shows the love people have for the pharaohs. However, some Egyptians did not appreciate it. I have to say that American culture is different from our culture. An American woman can do this, but an Egyptian cannot.
I call this Tutmania and also the madness called Tutankhamun.