What I learned from King Tut

Euan Kerr
Euan Kerr is a member of the arts and culture unit at MPR News.
MPR Photo

The arrival of "Tutankhamun: the Golden King and the Great Pharohs" in St. Paul reminds me of a valuable lesson I learned at age 12 as a result of an earlier audience with his ancient majesty.

Back in 1972, in what was to that point the biggest adventure of my life, my dad took me and my sister Kirstie to London to see the treasures of King Tutankhamun. We flew from Edinburgh down to the exotic and slightly scary capital city and, feeling like young innocents abroad, we took in the sights: Big Ben, Piccadilly Circus and Petticoat Lane.

Yet the goal, and we thought the biggest challenge, was to go to the British Museum and see the treasures brought all the way from Egypt for our delight and education.

The exhibit had already been open for some weeks, and the newspapers all carried stories about crowds standing in line for hours. This was in the days before anyone thought of time-specific tickets. You turned up and joined the back of the line, which snaked out of the building and then around the museum grounds. As people got closer to the soot-blackened facade of the museum they grew more and more excited for their moments in the presence of the remnants of the boy king, in a very low-key British way, of course.

The duration of wait became a badge of honor. "You waited seven hours? Well, I was there for 10." The numbers had seemed almost jolly, until we joined the back of the line. Waiting for hours is never fun, but when you are 12, even a few minutes in the damp chill of a London autumn can seem like a significant chunk of your lifespan.

Remarkably, it took us only five hours to get into the show, where we marveled at the gold, the alabaster, the statues of the gods and the other funeral finery.

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Yet now there was a new challenge. The show was choked with bottlenecks. A single Tut-fan, craning at some tiny detail, could block the passage of the queue-numbed people behind. It happened again and again. Being 12 for once was an advantage, and I slipped around a couple of gawkers and pushed ahead.

I turned a corner and found myself completely alone in a room with the gold death mask.

There it was, one of the great iconic artworks, and there was me, the duffle-coated kid with a nose still running after five hours in the cold.

It would be grand to say something happened at that moment, to report some great realization or life-changing epiphany, but there was none. Then one of those clogs shook itself loose and a minor flood of humanity burst through the door to ooh and aah. I left moments later, feeling slightly ashamed at my lack of reaction to a brush with ancient history.

Meeting up with my dad and sister again, we pushed on into the British Museum itself. It's one of these institutions that have been gathering bits of the world's history for centuries, and the serendipity of wandering can take you to the most amazing places.

Having somehow ditched my family again, I wandered into a side-room and absentmindedly strolled up to a raised, glass-topped wooden case set at a slight upward angle. I peered in to see the Rosetta Stone. For the second time in an hour, I was alone with one of the great archaeological finds of all time.

Yet this time there was no bottle-necked crowd behind me. I was truly alone with the piece of stone that in 1799 provided a key to translating the hieroglyphics which had until then confounded Egyptologists. The stone has long been the museum's most visited treasure, but not on that day. To be alone with such a marvelous object was a wonderful feeling, invoking a feeling of discovery and satisfaction that far outshone my brush with the boy king.

This is an experience I have had time and again in the years since. As I wander museums I try to ignore the milling throngs, guidebooks in hand, heading to whatever item is in fashion that day. Sometimes it's not just a case of swimming against the stream, it's leaving the stream entirely to see what others are not seeking. I am always rewarded.

I often think back to my time with Tutankhamun. It wasn't long, and it wasn't really meaningful, but it really did change my life for the better.

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Euan Kerr is a member of the arts and culture unit at MPR News.