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King Tut show is Science Musuem's largest exhibit ever

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Tutankhamun Shabti
This shabti, or funerary figure, of King Tut was found in the antechamber of his tomb. Made of wood and painted gold, it was meant to perform labor in the afterlife so that the king himself could rest. The shabti is one of 100 artifacts from Tut's tomb and other notable ancient sites that will make their way to Minnesota for an exhibition at the Science Museum of Minnesota.
Photo courtesy Sandro Vannini

Thursday was the 88th anniversary of when Americans learned of an incredible find in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt: the tomb of King Tutankhamun, better known to many as King Tut.

Now a new collection of artifacts from the treasure trove of the boy king's grave is going on display at the Science Museum of Minnesota. 

Standing in the midst of what is the Science Museum of Minnesota's largest exhibition ever, David Silverman, the show's curator, beams with delight. He's been working on exhibits about King Tutankhamun since the 1970s and responds this way when asked if the subject is still fresh for him.

"Oh, yes," Silverman said. "That's one of the reasons I went into this field, because no matter how much I have learned, I always see something new." 

It's a never-ending fascination which has gripped many Americans. The show officially opens to the public Friday morning, and already some 35,000 tickets have been sold. Silverman says there are many reasons behind the love affair with King Tut.

"The ancient Egyptians unlike other ancient cultures, are part of our heritage in the Western world because everyone reads about the Egyptians in the bible," he said. "And it's not a very favorable view, but it's very exciting, and Hollywood has certainly taken it to the extent of the mummy movies, Exodus, in the 10 Commandments and a variety of other movies." 

Dig tent recreation
The exhibit culminates with a recreation of the dig where 88 years ago, Egyptologists opened the boy king's tomb.
MPR Photo/Euan Kerr

And then of course there is the story of the discovery of the tomb itself.

"Underneath it all it happens to have one of the best stories ever about discovery and perseverance, and that was Howard Carter," Silverman said. "For years and years he knew and he wrote about it that he was going to find this tomb, and nothing would stop him. And then when he found it, it was not only beyond his dreams but everybody else's. It turns out to be the most fantastic discovery ever made, and in this case Hollywood could not have written it any better."  

The show dramatizes the discovery through stage effects and a booming narration as visitors enter a representation of the tomb itself.  

This show is different from previous King Tut exhibits which have toured the U.S., in that it places Tutankhamun in the context of 2,000 years of ancient Egyptian history. Tutankhamun was just nine when he ascended the throne, and just 19 when he died unexpectedly.

Tutankhamun has been dismissed as one of the lesser pharaohs by some historians, but Silverman is not so sure. He said Tutankhamun succeed a father who had systematically changed Egyptian society by doing away with old beliefs in many gods creating a monotheistic religion worshiping the sun. Silverman said the young king had a similarly large impact by restoring the old ways.

Show curator
David Silverman, the show's curator, has been working with artifacts from the Tutankhamen era since the 1970s, but said there is always something new to learn.
MPR Photo/Euan Kerr

"It's not like a 19 year old today," he said. "People matured faster because they died earlier. So he was already leading battles, and I think he was probably making a lot of decisions on his own. Many earlier scholars have even suggested at one point that Tutankhamun's treasures may actually have been larger than others with the possibility that the people were very thankful to him for restoring their religion."

Some of the iconic artifacts linked to the boy king are not in this show. The huge golden death mask no longer leaves Egypt, for example. But there is something which has only recently been revealed: an exact replica of Tutankhamun's actually mummy. Silverman said the original was only put on display for the first time 4 years ago.

"Not that many people have actually had the opportunity of seeing it, and to be able to have an exact reproduction, an exact replica is really incredible," he said. "You see this replica and it is somewhat humbling that behind the myth, behind the hype, behind the gold, there is a human being." 

The show runs at the Science Museum of Minnesota through early September. Museum staff suggest calling ahead for time-specific tickets to avoid having to wait in line.