Among the chiseled busts of pharaohs and stone statuary at the Pacific Science Center’s heavily marketed King Tut show, there’s an odd chunk of limestone with a key-shaped hole in the middle. A label identifies it as a latrine seat from the Akhenaten’s palace at Amarna. Is it possible that the tiny bum of the boy Tutankhamun once perched on that cold toilet seat at his father’s palace, in the midst of an extraordinary revolution in Egyptian art and religion he would too soon inherit? Who knows? Why this toilet seat appears here goes unexplained.
That’s the main problem with Tutankhamun: The Golden King and the Great Pharaohs. It’s a hodgepodge of objects spanning some 2,000 years. With more than 100 ancient artifacts, the show has plenty of intriguing things to look at, but offers no help in connecting the dots among them. The most memorable objects are the ones that give some shape to this unwieldy smattering of Egyptian history, that make these long distant lives seem human rather than made of stone.
A colossal carved figure on a high pedestal in the introductory rooms of the exhibition, with the young, pure face and smooth torso of Tutankhamun, is the most moving. He seems too mild and innocent for the complex political world he found himself representing. To his left, against an adjoining wall, stands an imposing bust of his strange, magnificent father, Akhenaten, with that distinctive narrow face and sharp features. Together, they give a sense of these people and their rarified, unsettled lives, but oddly, the text panels don’t draw any connection between the two men.
Time disappears again in front of a small incomplete relief carving from an artist’s studio, with a woman’s figure sketched in and one exquisite foot already delicately modeled. In the naturalistic Amarna style, the artist captures the woman in a mundane moment, nibbling on a roast duck. And there we find her: half in this world, half still lodged in the mind of her anonymous creator.
These objects are not from Tut’s tomb. In fact, that part of the exhibit feels almost like an afterthought. Last time a show of Tutankhamun artifacts came to Seattle in the late 1970s, it was hosted here by Seattle Art Museum and exclusively devoted to the boy king. This time around the Egyptian government, with good reason, didn’t want to risk traveling the most precious objects, including Tut’s iconic gold funerary mask (a later, less distinguished mask has been substituted).
With the distracting background music, vague text panels, and hyped-up video presentations by former Egyptian antiquities minister Zahi Hawass, Tutankhamun: The Golden King and the Great Pharaohs doesn’t provide the educational, science-based approach to this material the Pacific Science Center venue suggests. In that regard, it’s a missed opportunity. But ancient Egypt is endlessly fascinating and these extraordinary objects won’t be leaving their troubled homeland again in our lifetimes. If you can afford the price of admission (around $30 for non-members), the show is well worth visiting.
Tutankhamun: The Golden King and the Great Pharaohs
Thru Jan 6, Pacific Science Center, $16–$33