How King Tut evolved from Cold War cultural ambassador to today's corporate pitchman
Given the pharaoh's mammoth celebrity, Tut's divine ka would eventually find itself holding down an unexpected job. Culture is a soft instrument in promoting a nation's interests in commercial, political and strategic fields, and Tut has been doing that work with skill and finesse for more than 30 years. He has shuttled around the world since the 1970s, first as a player in the Cold War and now, improbably, during the war on terrorism. The dead boy king was reborn as Ambassador Tut, Egypt's most celebrated public messenger.
In 1976, when he first landed on these shores, cultural diplomacy between nations was a serious endeavor with high social purpose. The general proposition then was that government is a problem-solver.
But societies change. Today the establishment's answer to social problems, big and small, is private enterprise.
The difference between public purpose and private enterprise contains the seed for the critical commotion that has swirled around the Tut exhibition at LACMA -- tumult that did not accompany the first American show of the pharaoh's artifacts. Art museums used to be places of escape and refuge from the commercial world. Now they're just another roadside attraction. Tut is a marker for that shift.
He's an unlikely candidate for cultural poster boy. Tut was a minor king in an ancient period of artistic stasis. Not much happened during his nine-year reign, least of all artistically. Without the accident and timing of his tomb's discovery in 1922, the boy king would not have gotten the ambassador job at all.
The 37th U.S. president was the man behind"The Treasures of Tutankhamen" in 1976, remembered -- for better and for worse -- as ushering in the age of the blockbuster in America's art museums.
Egypt had sent a selection of Tut's tomb materials to the British Museum three years earlier, in anticipation of the 50th anniversary of their discovery by the British archeologist Howard Carter in the colonial sands of Luxor. Nixon saw an opening where none had been before. Gamal Abdel Nasser, the president who cultivated Soviet bloc allies and declared Egypt a socialist state, had come to power when Nixon was vice president. Nasser had denied U.S. requests to display the treasure.
But in the aftermath of Egypt's defeat by Israel in the Six-Day War and amid deliberations for a settlement of the Middle East conflict, Nasser died. Anwar Sadat, his close ally, succeeded him. Nixon arranged the first visit to Egypt by a U.S. president, establishing full diplomatic relations.
Partly it made for a shiny distraction from his Watergate troubles back home. The June 1974 trip was just weeks before the scandal forced him from office.
But Sadat had inherited a deteriorating relationship with the Soviets, and Nixon was genuinely happy to encourage and exploit the rift. He asked his host why Egypt had sent Tut's treasures on tour in the Soviet Union after Britain but would not send them to the United States.
"Nixon demanded one more city than Russia and more objects," Thomas Hoving, the museum director who organized"The Treasures of Tutankhamen," wrote in his memoirs."Sadat was sympathetic."
On Nov. 17, 1976, the first Tut show opened to the public after a black-tie gala at Washington's National Gallery, an art museum under the auspices of the U.S. State Department. It promptly became a sensation. Nixon was long gone, but he had wanted the boy king to be the face of an improved U.S. strategic position in the Cold War struggle in the Middle East. And he was.
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