The treasures of King Tut return to Seattle in "Tutankhamun: The Golden King and the Great Pharoahs," which opens May 24, 2012, at Pacific Science Center.
It was dawn when Jerry Hume and the rest of the USS Milwaukee crew pulled into port off the coast of Alexandria, Egypt, that day in 1976. He remembers first the tangerine glow of the sky, the wind whipping sand around his head and, next, the smell of sulfur and a ring of rusting hulks along the shore.
While the crew remained below deck, priceless artifacts from King Tutankhamun’s tomb were shuffled into the belly of the ship, which would take them to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. (That Met-organized show traveled to seven U.S. cities, including Seattle, attracting more than 8 million visitors.)
Hume knew something of King Tut, the boy pharaoh. But it was not until pulling into port in Alexandria that the enormity of that moment struck him. Before being enlisted to transport Egypt’s treasured relics stateside, Hume’s vessel had been a replenishment oiler, carrying arms, fuel and other cargo.
“When we found out (about the mission), I went to the ship’s library and I pulled out encyclopedias and articles on all the different countries around the Mediterranean,” he recalls, dressed in the royal-blue uniform of his Navy days. “One of them was Egypt.”
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The exhibition of King Tut’s life and times marked the beginning of diplomatic relations with Egypt, which had been aligned with the then-Soviet Union.
“I remember standing outside,” said the retired naval chief and Seattle resident, “thinking, ‘My God, this is history.’ “
On Thursday that history returns when the mystique of Tut again lands in Seattle, the last stop on the North American tour of “Tutankhamun: The Golden King and the Great Pharoahs.” The exhibition at the Pacific Science Center contains more than 100 items — about half from Tut’s tomb, the rest from other ancient sites — spanning 2,000 years and 30 dynasties of Egyptian pharaohic reign. About 80,000 tickets have been sold already for the Seattle exhibit.
Items in “Tutankhamun” include golden sandals that were found on Tutankhamun’s body, a coffinette that likely held his stomach after he was mummified and an elaborate gold-and-feldspar collar that was worn by a princess. What did not come along on this tour is the famed gold death mask that most people associate with the boy king and that captured the public’s fascination in the 1970s. The mask has been deemed too fragile to travel.
“There’s something so romantic and mysterious and fascinating about ancient Egypt,” said Crystal Clarity, Science Center marketing director. “It’s not often that we get to be this close to something so old.”
Tut’s first tour of the city in 1978 drew crowds of 1.3 million. To accommodate the crush, Seattle Art Museum — the exhibit’s host — stationed the show in the Seattle Center Flag Pavilion. It was a remarkable feat for a museum staff that had never orchestrated a show of that scale.
“I still hear stories from people who remember these objects so vividly,” said David Silverman, who was a curator for that exhibit. “It was such a monumental exhibit. People lined up for days, with sleeping bags, trying to get in.”
Tut’s success at SAM grew membership by nearly 15,000 from 1976 to ’78. Though the exhibit only spanned four months, the show’s popularity in part encouraged SAM to expand beyond its home in Volunteer Park. King Tut had become a global phenomenon, made popular by fashion trends, Steve Martin’s “Saturday Night Live” skit and the story of a boy king.
“The core magic of Tut hasn’t changed,” said Bryce Seidl, president and CEO of the Pacific Science Center. “But the tools of science are taking us to places we’ve never been before in terms of new discoveries.”
Seidl promises the new show will not only be larger in scope than the 1978 exhibit but will offer a more comprehensive narrative. Technological advances have filled in history’s gaps, providing insight into Tut’s cause of death, his family history and the events surrounding his reign.
Tutankhamun was born in 1341 BC and ascended the throne some nine years later. He died in his late teens, and scientists have debated for decades the essentials of his life: who his parents were, what he looked like and what might have caused his death.
A portion of the exhibit space has been dedicated to the story of Howard Carter, the archaeologist who discovered King Tutankhamun’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings in 1922.
The 15,000-square-foot exhibition is accompanied by more than $13 million in renovation projects at the Pacific Science Center, including the installment of an elevator, a glass-covered walkway and heightened security for the treasured artifacts.
After anemic attendance at the 2008-09 “Lucy” exhibit about an ancient human ancestor, the Science Center has high expectations for Tut. Seidl said he will not release projected attendance numbers, but if previous cities are any indication, the exhibition would be a blockbuster. An economic-impact report from Philadelphia, a previous stop for another version of the exhibition, estimated that the show had generated $100 million for the city.
“That’s big,” said Seidl. “I can tell you that of public events, this will rank way up there … It will be good for hotels, for restaurants, for regional publicity. And we know from other regions that lots of people come from out of market.”
Lars Pedersen, general manager of Hotel Andra on Fourth Avenue, said his was among 12 hotels creating tourism deals around the exhibition. The “Treasures of Tut” package includes two VIP tickets to the show, locally made pyramid chocolates, postcards and a commemorative bottle of wine.
“For downtown Seattle hotels, this is the biggest thing to happen in over five years,” said Clarity.
After the exhibit closes in January 2013, the artifacts will return to Egypt, where they are expected to remain on permanent display in Cairo. Revenue from the tour has gone toward funding that national project.
“I’d want to thank the Egyptian people for this time to admire something so special to them,” said Hume, who has yet to see the artifacts in a museum. He plans on taking his wife and two daughters to the show when it opens next week. “It’s like a piece of jewelry that you loaned to my family for a while to appreciate, but that belongs to a great-grandmother. Now you want it back. Well, that piece of jewelry made a lot of people happy. It created a commonality, a bond with the Egyptians. And I think that’s wonderful.”
Celina Kareiva: 206-384-8904 or firstname.lastname@example.org