Monday, May 29, 2006

Tut for tat, or it's hard out here for a pharoah

The return of King Tut to the Field Museum feels more like a side project than a blockbuster. Contrary to billing, "Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs" includes many artifacts predating Tut's reign, and the Sun-Times reference to the conspicuous absence of Tutankanen's sarcophagus is literal; a recreated death chamber has at its center an empty riser.

But while smaller than the Field's 1977 "Treasures of Tutankhamun" show, one of the many opening previews of the current show required more than the alloted hour. It will need much more time to view once crowds grow larger and more teathered to audio tours, which tend to turn viewers into obstructions.

Exhibition designer AEG frames the exhibit as an overview of the pharoahs's time, making efficient use of the assortment of Valley of the Kings artifacts. While the Field's standing exhibit presents hieroglyphics largely as propaganda vehicles, the Tut display suggests more of their spiritual symbolism. Tut's warrior reign is noted in multiple artifacts depicting enslaved Nubians (bend over — one figure for a walking stick is stretched too far for comfort).

The work of creating these objects is left unexplained. Tomb dressing for pharoahs at war was surely a growth business, though, involving hundreds of craftsmen and years of work. One item buried with Tut is labeled for interment for a short-lived predecessor. But the focus is squarely on the pharoahs, not their legion of servants.

The cult of personality is sign of our gilded age, the Tribune's art critic suggests in arguing for more discussion of artistic merit. Instead, opening-week publicity centered on a dustup over a sarcophagus in the private collection of a museum sponsor. The Egyptian aniquities chief demanded its return to a museum, even absent signs that the coffin was a museum-quality artifact. The piece was pledged to the museum in time for Tut's opening, yet another triumph for hype.

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