King Tut: A Classic Blockbuster Museum Exhibition That Began as a Diplomatic Gesture

When the boy-king was the hottest ticket in town

HUMANITIES, September/October 2015, Volume 36, Number 5

President Richard Nixon hung on to the brass rail of a Victorian parlor car, leaning out the window and waving to cheering crowds. The train huffed from Cairo to Alexandria, passing cotton fields, orange groves, and water buffalo. The date was June 13, 1974, and back in Washington, D.C., the House Judiciary Committee waited impatiently for the White House to turn over tapes of conversations recorded in Nixon’s office. The committee wanted to know what Nixon knew about the Watergate burglary.

Black and white photo of people lining up on the National Mall to enter a King Tut exhibit in 1977.
Photo caption

People line the edge of the National Mall, waiting to see “Treasures of Tutankhamun” at the National Gallery in February 1977.

Washington Post

Photo of a golden pectoral body ornament with a yellow-green scarab at its center.
Photo caption

In this pectoral, a scarab made of yellow-green chalcedony grows falcon wings as its front legs hold up the moon as represented by the “Eye of Horus.”

© CULTNAT, Dist. RMN-GP / Art Resource, NY


On the train next to Nixon stood Anwar Sadat, the president of Egypt, with whom he was about to sign a bilateral agreement. Negotiated by Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s secretary of state, it represented a step forward in forging a new partnership between the two countries after the termination of diplomatic relations seven years earlier. Tucked into the agreement was a clause devoted to culture. The United States would help the Egyptians reconstruct Cairo’s opera house, while Egypt would send the “Treasures of Tutankh­amun” to the United States.

After an explosive few years in the Middle East, Richard Nixon wanted the American people to associate Egypt with something more than oil and war. There are few things that survive from the ancient world more compelling or captivating than artifacts of Tutankhamun, the boy-king who ruled Egypt thirty-three centuries ago. By sending his treasures on tour across the United States, Nixon and Kissinger hoped to shape public perceptions about the United States’ newest ally. What they got was a cultural juggernaut.

From November 1976 to April 1979, “Treasures of Tutankhamun” traveled to six American cities with the help of NEH grants. As millions of people lined up for hours to see the show, museums became the hottest tickets in town, helping usher in the era of the blockbuster museum exhibition.

The discovery that captivated the world 

Tutankhamun, more commonly known as King Tut, has played an outsized role in our cultural imagination ever since archaeologist Howard Carter and his patron, the fifth Earl of Carnarvon, opened his tomb in November 1922.

For years, Carter had been digging in the Valley of the Kings, the ancient burial site of Egypt’s pharaohs, in search of Tut. Almost ready to call it quits, Carnarvon agreed to support Carter for one last season. Carter decided to focus his efforts on a small plot of land lodged between the tombs of Ramesses II, Merneptah, and Ramesses VI. Huts that might have belonged to the workers who built the tomb of Ramesses VI had been discovered there. From what Carter knew about Egyptian burial practices, it seemed unlikely that workers would have been allowed to camp on a pharaoh’s tomb, but it was the only place left to search.

On the second day of the dig, Carter’s workmen discovered a layer of flint chips, which often signified the presence of a tomb. On the morning of day four, they found the beginning of a staircase. It dead-ended at a door bearing the seals of the royal necropolis. Marshalling every ounce of self-control he possessed, Carter ordered his workers to refill the staircase with rubble, then posted guards. A pharaoh might lie behind the door, but finding out would have to wait until Carnarvon arrived from Britain.

After a series of ferries, trains, ships, and donkeys, Carnarvon reached the Valley of Kings on November 20. Workers removed the rubble on the following day. Seals belonging to Tutankhamun appeared, and holes had been cut into the door. Carter’s heart sank. Archaeologists had located more than thirty royal tombs since the nineteenth century—only to discover that grave robbers had looted all of them first. What if Tut’s tomb had also been ransacked? Beyond the door was a narrow passage twenty-five feet long. It too bore signs of tampering. As the workers cleared the rubble, another door appeared, also sealed and repaired.

On November 26, Carter drilled a hole in the door and peeked inside. “At first, I could see nothing, the hot air escaping the chamber causing the candle flame to flicker, but presently, as my eyes grew accustomed to the light, details of the room within emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues, and gold—everywhere the glint of gold,” he wrote in his account of the discovery.

Carter had found the antechamber to Tut’s tomb. Priceless artifacts lay jumbled all around: thrones, boxes, vases, chariots, statues, weapons, and more. Grave robbers most likely created the mess, as no pharaoh would have entered the afterlife amid such disarray.

Realizing he needed help, Carter contacted the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which had a team working in the valley. In particular, he wanted the services of photographer Harry Burton. “Only too delighted to assist in any possible way. Please call on Burton and any other member of our staff,” cabled A. M. Lythgoe, the Met’s curator of Egyptian art. As Carter excavated, Burton photographed his progress, providing a historic and intimate account of the process.

The throng of reporters who witnessed the opening of Tut’s tomb made the discovery front-page news and this once obscure pharaoh a celebrity. But the antechamber was only the beginning. Carter found three more rooms—annex, burial chamber, and treasury—stuffed full of golden treasures. It would take more than a decade to excavate Tut’s tomb, but Carnarvon did not live to see the results. In April 1923, the earl died of complications from an infected mosquito bite. His untimely death, along with the demise of other members of the expedition, inspired lurid tales of the “Curse of the Pharaoh.”

A good deal of mystery surrounded the man in the tomb. Tut reigned for nine (or ten) years during the Eighteenth Dynasty of the New Kingdom, a period of imperial prosperity for Egypt. He ascended the throne at the age of nine, taking as his wife Ankhesenamun, his half-sister and the daughter of Nefertiti. The couple produced two daughters, both of whom were stillborn. Their fetuses were found in Tut’s tomb. The boy-king also possessed a clubbed left foot, which probably required him to use a cane.

His short life has led to ongoing speculation on the cause of his death. Some have claimed murder. Others believe he died following a chariot accident. The most recent findings suggest that a sour genetic cocktail, caused by intermarriage among Egyptian royalty, produced a sickly constitution, further compromised by malaria.

Political arrangements

Throughout the fall and winter of 1974 to 1975, the State Department negotiated with the Egyptians. It was decided the exhibition would start in 1976 and serve as a gift of friendship from Egypt to the United States during the bicentennial year.

The inclusion of a Tut show in the Nixon-Sadat agreement upended plans by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., to organize its own Tut exhibition. J. Carter Brown, the gallery’s director, had already received approval from Sadat and the Egyptian cultural ministry to host Tut in 1977 or 1978. Now that Tut had become part of Nixon’s diplomatic strategy, Brown wasn’t sure what role the National Gallery could or should play. Nevertheless, he offered the National Gallery’s services as the organizing institution.

Thomas Hoving, director of the Met, also stepped into the fray. Hoving didn’t think much of Nixon’s use of Tut as a diplomatic tool, but he changed his tune after Kissinger buttonholed C. Douglas Dillon, the president of the Met’s board of trustees. From his conversation with Kissinger, Dillon believed the Met might lose access to federal grants if it didn’t take an active role in organizing the Tut exhibition. Hoving, who had a flair for the dramatic, later claimed that Kissinger threatened to have his taxes audited if he didn’t show more interest. Soon, Hoving was knee-deep in his own negotiations with the Egyptians.

Having both the National Gallery and the Met vying to organize the Tut show complicated negotiations in Cairo. The museums had competed for decades, but the rivalry between Brown and Hoving was personal. Neither liked to lose—and Brown had consistently outmaneuvered Hoving in securing international shows. After the National Gallery beat out the Met to host another détente art show, “The Archaeological Treasures of the People’s Republic of China,” Hoving vowed to never lose another big show to Brown.

In the spring of 1975, the State Department asked Brown if the National Gallery would step aside and let the Met coordinate the exhibition. Hoving’s yearlong charm offensive in Cairo had worked its magic. Brown agreed, provided the Tut show opened at the National Gallery, in keeping with its bylaws, and the Met wasn’t given credit as the initiator of the exhibition. Hoving stewed over the Met being denied the chance to open the exhibition—Brown had once again managed to outmaneuver him—but calmed down when he realized, as he wrote in his memoirs, “that being last was actually better than being first—visitors would flood to the final opportunity to see the show.”

In late October 1975, Kissinger and Egyptian Foreign Minister Ismail Fahmy signed an agreement outlining the exhibition. “Treasures of Tutankhamun” would begin in Washington, D.C., travel to Chicago, New Orleans, Los Angeles, and Seattle, and finish in New York. Each museum would host for four months, with two months in between for packing, travel, and installation. The Egyptians had final say on the selection of museums. By having the Tut show tour six cities, the Americans also trumped the Soviets—which is exactly what Nixon wanted. When “Treasures of Tutankh­amun” toured the Soviet Union, it visited only three: Moscow, Leningrad, and Kiev.

After seeing a copy of the budget from the British Museum’s 1972 Tut show, Hoving and Brown began to fret. The insurance costs alone were staggering, not to mention the additional staff and logistical support required. Help appeared on the insurance front when Congress passed the Arts and Artifacts Indemnity Act, in December 1975, to help cover insurance costs related to hosting international exhibitions. “Treasures of Tutankhamun” became the first international art exhibition indemnified under the new law.

A grant from NEH to the Met in the summer of 1976 helped defray the upfront costs of organizing the show. The Robert Wood Johnson Jr. Charitable Trust and Exxon together matched the $250,000 provided by NEH.

Putting on a show 

With an official agreement in place, the Met and its partner museums had less than a year to design and assemble the exhibition. Christine Lilyquist, the Met’s curator of Egyptian art, chose the fifty-five objects for the exhibition in consultation with Hoving and the staff of the Cairo Museum. The Met also sent Lee Boltin to Egypt to take color photographs for a catalog, which I. E. S. Edwards, just retired as Keeper of Egyptian Antiquities at the British Museum, agreed to write.

Hoving believed that once visitors moved past the “ooh” stage, the exhibition needed to provide context for the objects. William J. Williams, from the National Gallery’s education department, teamed up with David Silverman, an Egyptologist at the Field Museum, to write the wall text and to select images from the Met’s archive of Burton photographs.

When arrangements to transport Tut’s artifacts to the United States became hopelessly muddled, the U.S. Navy came to the rescue. The USS Milwaukee picked up the treasure in Alexandria, Egypt, and handed it off in Naples, Italy, to the USS Sylvania, which delivered it to Norfolk, Virginia, in early September 1976.

Each museum received the same objects, wall text, and Burton photographs. They also agreed to organize the exhibition around the layout of the tomb. Beyond that, they were free to put their own spin on presentation. The National Gallery opted for a spare approach that showcased the gold artifacts against saturated walls, while the Met and the Seattle Art Museum both drew on Burton’s photos to recreate Tut’s tomb in the staging.

At each museum, the exhibition opened with a passage that mimicked the walk Carter took, back in the Valley of the Kings, from the steps to the second door. Visitors saw Tut first as a painted wood figure depicting him as the sun god: intense dark eyes, full lips, and an elongated skull. The figure, which would have allowed Tut to be continually reborn as the sun god, appears here because Carter discovered it beneath the rubble in the entranceway, most likely dropped by thieves as they scurried out.

From here, visitors progressed to the antechamber. A portable chest made of red and ebony woods is the only specimen of its kind that survives from ancient Egypt. A child’s chair, used by Tut when he was a boy, features gilded panels. The older Tut would have sat on the ceremonial chair, which has legs that turn into the paws of a lion and a carved back depicting Heh, the god of eternity. Sheet gold—imprinted with hieroglyphs, scenes of gods and kings, vultures, and flowers—covers the outside of a golden shrine. Archaeologists believe the shrine, which stands twenty inches tall, was intended to commemorate Tut’s coronation and sustain his dominion in the afterlife.

When it came time to open the burial chamber, Carter once again made a small hole and peered inside, using an electric light, before removing the entire door. “An astonishing sight its light revealed, for there, within a yard of the doorway, stretching as far as one could see and blocking the entrance to the chamber, stood what to all appearance was a solid wall of gold,” he wrote. When he removed the door, he discovered it wasn’t a wall, but a large shrine containing Tut’s sarcophagus.

The shrine and the sarcophagus didn’t travel to the United States, but items from the burial chamber, including some that adorned Tut’s mummified body, did. A lion carved of alabaster perched atop an unguent jar decorated with scenes of animals in combat. A three-and-a-half-inch solid gold rendering of a standing Tut, wearing a crown and kilt, topped a four-foot gold staff. Thirty brown and white ostrich feathers would have filled out a gold relief fan depicting an ostrich hunt, but insects had largely devoured them by the time Carter entered the tomb.

When Carter opened Tut’s sarcophagus, he found three coffins, one nestled inside the next. Tut’s mummified body lay in the final coffin, a funeral mask covering his head and upper body. The mask, which for all of its golden glitz makes it seem as if the boy-king still lives, has become synonymous with Tut. Obsidian and quartz create his soulful eyes, while lapis lazuli sketches his eyelashes and eyebrows. A fake beard appears below his full lips, its plaits crafted from the same deep-blue glass as the stripes in his headdress. As a vulture springs forth from Tut’s brow, signifying his dominion over Upper Egypt, a cobra puffs up beside it, proclaiming Tut’s sovereignty over Lower Egypt. A wide collar inlaid with green feldspar, lapis, and quartz covers his chest, swooping up to finish with a falcon’s head perched on each shoulder.

Beneath the strips of linen, Carter found a necklace with an intricate pendant portraying the blue-winged vulture goddess Nekhbet. Another vulture, this one in the form of an elaborate gold collar with glass feathers in shades of turquoise, lapis, and jasper, spread its protective wings across Tut’s mummified body.

From the burial chamber, visitors entered the treasury, which contained some of the liveliest pieces in the exhibition. A model boat measuring almost four feet and crafted of a single piece of wood helped Tut navigate the afterlife. A sculpture of a golden Tut portrays him standing on a raft made of papyrus (not unlike a surfboard), his arm hoisted and ready to throw a harpoon. Carter found Tut’s organs in an alabaster canopic chest inside a shrine guarded by four golden goddesses, each standing fifty-four inches high. The tight clinging robes of the goddess Selket give her an unexpected slinkiness.

Tut storms America 

When the exhibition opened at the National Gallery on November 17, 1976, the line wrapped around the three-block-long building. Tickets were distributed daily, on a first-come, first-served basis, leading people to regularly queue up at dawn. To bring visitors in from the unusually brisk winter, the gallery snaked the line through the entire building. Even so, once they reached the Fourth Street NW entrance, ticketholders still faced a four-hour wait before they could walk down the west marble staircase and descend into the tomb.

President Carter paid his respects ahead of a visit by Sadat to discuss Middle East peace negotiations. Standing with Sadat on the south grounds of the White House on April 4, 1977, Carter called seeing Tut “one of the most exciting experiences that I have had.”

Members of Congress paraded through, as did Hollywood royalty. Elizabeth Taylor, who had played the legendary Cleopatra, took in the exhibition with her husband, John Warner. So did Robert Redford, Marisa Berenson, Rex Harrison, William Holden, and Stefanie Powers. Andy Warhol and Richard Avedon also stalked Tut.

When the exhibition closed on March 15, more than 835,000 people had seen Tut—more than the population of Washington, D.C. Although a certified hit, the exhibition strained the gallery’s resources, requiring extra staff and security. The phones quit working halfway through. The gallery’s wood and marble floors suffered damage from the countless footsteps. By the end of each day, tumbleweed-sized dust bunnies lurked in corners.

Visitors spent $100,000 a week (in 1976 dollars) on souvenirs. Exiting the show, they stepped into a store stocked with three hundred Tut-themed items developed by the Met. There were coloring books, posters, and postcards, along with a Tut tote bag. The Tut-inspired jewelry collection ran to one hundred pieces. Hermès designed a limited-edition scarf, while Limoges produced a porcelain plate adorned with a falcon. There was also a $1,500 reproduction of the goddess Selket. The profits from the sale of merchandise were earmarked for the work of the Egyptian Organization of Antiquities, in particular renovations to the Cairo Museum.

From Washington, the exhibition moved to Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History, where officials nervously welcomed the pharaoh and his belongings. The museum installed a new switchboard, arranged for more staff and volunteers, devised a different ticketing system, and upgraded its security system.

People began lining up at five in the morning on April 15, 1977. A group of friends arrived after an all-night bar crawl. One lay on the museum steps “mummified” from head to toe in toilet paper. By nine o’clock, two thousand people were waiting. When the Field Museum halted sales at 1:30 p.m., it had issued 8,547 numbered tickets. Visitors receiving the last tickets faced a seven-hour wait, but could roam the rest of the museum before getting to see Tut.

In mid June, the museum began flying a gold flag, emblazoned with a King Tut mask, on the north side of the building to signal the availability of tickets to motorists on Lake Shore Drive. When lowered to half staff, tickets were gone for the day. The flag usually went down before noon.

To complement the Tut show, the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute hosted “The Magic of Egyptian Art,” an exhibition supported by NEH. The show featured thirty-seven objects used to embalm Tut, along with examples of Egyptian writing, portraiture, and religious items. Before Tut’s arrival, the Oriental Institute also sponsored a free lecture series, supported by NEH as well, covering everything from mummification to the history of the Eighteenth Dynasty.

Not everyone in Chicago fell for Tut. Best-selling novelist Andrew Greeley lamented in the Chicago Tribune that in the rush to see Tut, people were ignoring masterpieces at the Art Institute. “I kind of feel that it’s tasteless to flock like sheep to see one set of artistic treasures and ignore all the others around.” The Chicago Tribune, however, called Tut “a grand slam homer for culture.”

On Monday, August 15, when the last visitor, Keith Feiler, an English teacher from Elmhurst, passed through the exhibition, the staff enlisted his help to reenact an ancient Egyptian ritual. After high Egyptian officials placed all of the items into a pharaoh’s tomb, they swept away their footprints as they exited. Using a replica of an ancient Egyptian broom, Feiler helped sweep away the footprints of the 1.35 million people who had come before him.

From Chicago, Tut moved to New Orleans, running from September 15, 1977, to January 15, 1978. John Bullard, the director of the New Orleans Museum of Art, confessed to having “nightmares” before its arrival. The museum had never hosted anything to rival Tut. One month before the exhibition debuted, group tours sold out. The museum also stopped offering memberships, which included access to the exhibition, after subscriptions climbed from 3,000 to 12,000.

When Tut opened, the line meandered into City Park. The museum erected a striped canopy over the sidewalk to provide shade. Sixteen portable “Tutlets” were also stationed nearby. Lelong Drive, which leads to the museum’s front steps, was painted Nile blue and the Fairmont Hotel served Sphinxburgers, Queen Nefertiti’s salads, and bowls of Ramses’ gumbo. The museum also used a grant from NEH to offer a series of public programs about Tut and Egyptian history.

Bourbon Street couldn’t resist Tutmania either. While decked out like an Egyptian goddess, legendary burlesque dancer Chris Owens shimmied her way through a routine called “Pharaoh’s Favorite Toy.”

When the doors closed, 870,594 people had seen the show and spent $75 million in town. The museum saw Tut off with a jazz funeral.

The show traveled next to Los Angeles, where it ran from February 15 to June 15, 1978. Rates quickly spiked in all of the parking lots surrounding the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Ticket scalpers went to work. To manage the crowds, LACMA offered advance tickets at $2 apiece, selling out weeks before Tut’s arrival. By opening day, scalpers were selling tickets for $35 each.

LACMA built a Tut Shop on the plaza outside the museum. Frederick Cole, a labor contractor who witnessed the mania for Tut when he visited New Orleans, set up his own Tut Shoppe on Wilshire Boulevard adjacent to LACMA. “It just struck me that this is where it was at,” he told the New York Times.

When it came time to pack up the exhibition, the museum gave the Los Angeles Times a front row seat to the painstaking process. No matter how gentle the curators were, the packing and display process enacted a toll on the objects. Curators from the Cairo Museum assessed items for damage and repairs were made before tucking the artifacts into special containers. Upon arrival in the next city, the process was repeated. “You learn the personality quirks of every piece—how strong they are, what they can take and what they can’t. It’s like being married—to fifty-five wives,” said Yale Kneeland, a conservator who supervised the packing process on behalf of the Met.

From Los Angeles, Tut traveled north, opening at Seattle Center’s Flag Pavilion on July 15, 1978. Built for the 1962 World’s Fair, the pavilion was renovated to host the exhibition with the help of a $1.2 million grant from the federal Economic Development Administration. The Seattle Art Museum, the sponsoring institution, lacked the necessary facilities.

Unlike in Los Angeles, which drew the majority of its visitors from the surrounding area, the show in Seattle relied heavily on tourists. Tickets for packaged tours could be purchased in advance. Otherwise, numbered tickets—$1 for an adult and 50 cents for students and seniors—were sold daily starting at 8:30 a.m. Monitors around the Seattle Center and downtown displayed wait times and ticket availability. On select nights, the museum offered private viewings to groups, such as the Junior League and Boeing, for a premium of $7.50 to $10 a head. Afterward, visitors rode to the top of the Space Needle and sipped Tut-inspired cocktails. By the time he departed for New York, 1.29 million people had viewed Tut’s burial mask in Seattle.

After organizing the exhibition and watching it enthrall audiences from afar, the Met finally had its moment. To handle the crowds—and keep people from freezing in line during the New York winter—the Met offered its free tickets through Ticketron, which charged a small service fee. They went on sale on a rainy September morning, and the line stretched along Fifth Avenue from 80th Street all the way down to 59th. Tickets were sold out in six days, but when one New Jersey agency advertised Tut tickets for $20 apiece in the New York Times, it faced legal action. Scalping was illegal on both sides of the Hudson River.

During Tut’s run from December 15, 1978, to April 15, 1979, 633,500 out-of-town visitors descended on New York City, pumping $110 million into the local economy. When the Met closed its doors on the exhibition, 1.27 million people had gazed upon the objects the museum had helped Howard Carter excavate more than five decades earlier.

Tut, Tut, King Tut

As the Tut show at the Metropolitan wound down, Steve Martin lamented on Saturday Night Live about how “we have commercialized it with trinkets and toys, T-shirts and posters.” Dressed like a dime-store pharaoh and backed by a band attired in Egyptian garb and two gyrating dancers, Martin delivered what became an iconic routine: “(King Tut) (King Tut) / Now when he was a young man, / He never thought he’d see (King Tut) / People stand in line to see the boy king. (King Tut) / How’d you get so funky?” Halfway through the song, a saxophone player in head-to-toe Tut garb emerged from a sarcophagus at center stage. As he riffed on the song’s melody, Martin placed a blender before him as an offering.

While Nixon and Kissinger wanted the Tut show for diplomatic reasons, there was no denying, as Martin so deftly pointed out, that the exhibition made money for its host museums, savvy retailers, and local economies. The exhibition also captured the imagination of the American public, making Tut and his enchanting treasures part of the cultural zeitgeist of the 1970s.

Culture pundits tried to explain Tut’s appeal. Did the decadent golden treasures present an antidote to the cash-strapped 1970s? Were we just fascinated by mummies and Egyptian burial practices? A survey conducted by the National Gallery reported that 82 percent of attendees were drawn by “the beauty of the works of art” and 72 percent by “the age of the works of art.” Meanwhile, 62 percent professed an “interest in archaeology and ancient Egypt.” Only 15 percent claimed to have come because of the publicity.

“Treasures of Tutankhamun” brought several benefits with its oversized crowds. It forced museums to devise new ticketing systems for popular shows. The quality and success of the merchandising set a standard for future exhibitions. It also helped museums expand their membership rosters and interact with their communities in new ways. Whether or not blockbuster shows are good for museums remains an issue of contention. A 2001 Smithson­ian study noted that while they bring people into museums, blockbusters exhaust staff, drain resources that could be spent marketing the permanent collections, and create a “boom and bust” cycle of membership.

By allowing Tut’s artifacts to tour the United States, the Egyptian government raised $9 million to fund much needed renovations to the long-beleaguered Cairo Museum. Hoving, who resigned as director of the Met in 1977, helped mastermind an overhaul. While visitors to the museum in the early 1980s noticed improvements in how objects were displayed and labeled, Hoving complained in his memoir, published in 1993, that larger plans to reorganize the museum and train staff to maintain its collections had stalled. After arguing about it in committee for fifteen years, the Egyptians continued to disagree on how to best preserve and present Tut’s legacy.