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King Tut: First Time's A Charm, The Second Time A Travesty

So much has been said and written about the whirlwind King Tut exhibition--launched last week here at LACMA--that I hesitated initially to talk about it. I thought, "Why add to all this white noise?" But after the totally disagreeable experience of attending the gala opening, followed, a few days later, by walking through the exhibition with the curator, I am filled with conflicting emotions.

As you probably already know, this exhibition arrived on the heels of the mother of all block buster exhibitions---the first King Tut extravaganza, which toured Europe and the U.S. for several years in the mid-late 70's. First I saw it in 1976 at the Hermitage, the last year of my working there. The mysterious, otherworldly calm of the Pharoh's face stayed with me on my journey from Russia to America. A few years later, upon settling in Los Angeles, I was greeted by the golden mask of King Tut once again--this time from the fa-ade of LACMA. At the Hermitage, curators took full advantage of the sumptuous and romantic atmosphere of the 19th Century interiors of the Imperial museum. Los Angeles curators made a smart choice to emphasize the dramatic tension between the enigmatic opulence of the artifacts and the minimalistic environment of the white cube galleries. The two exhibitions couldn't have been more different in their appearance, but the result was the same: the moving and unforgettable experience of getting to know someone--and something--much, much bigger than life.

A quarter of a century later, the Egyptian authorities, in collaboration with various commercial entities, came up with the idea of making a hefty profit from a newly re-packaged King Tut road show, meant for mass audiences in the U.S., Europe and Asia. The commercial organizers of this tour took their very substantial investment-including the $20 million given up front to the Eyptian government---very seriously. They demanded--and received--the unprecedented full control over presentation, advertising and marketing from participating American museums. (All, with the exception of LACMA, distinctly second-tier institutions). When Philippe de Montebello politely declined the offer to host the show at the Metropolitan Museum, he cited a conflict with the museum's policy against charging admission for special exhibitions-in this case an exorbitant $30 per ticket. But everyone knew that the actual reason for his decision was the commercial nature of the exhibition and its lack of curatorial integrity. You see, Mr. de Montebello belongs to the dying breed of museum directors who believe that they and their museums are entrusted not only with priceless art treasures but also with the intangible but no less precious public trust into the integrity of their operations.

LACMA, for the few million dollars that it hopes to squeeze out of this commercial venture, has put its own integrity at risk. Never mind the live camels---I kid you not---at the gala opening, sprinkled with the shivering, semi-nude girls dressed as King Tut concubines. Inside, the heartbreakingly beautiful ancient artifacts are paraded as royal war booty, resentfully enduring the indignity of their drastically reduced circumstances. A reliable source told me that the LACMA administration and its curatorial staff had practically no say in the shaping of the exhibition. What would you say upon learning that your child's history book was shaped and published by Disney with minimum involvement from the American Board of Education, happily trading their integrity for cash? I'm mad as hell that LACMA, which I consider to be my and your museum entrusted to uphold and reflect this city's cultural aspirations, has reduced itself to a second-rate theme park. Be warned, the gift shop, located at the end of the tour, contains the ugliest and the cheesiest so-called"official replicas" of King Tut treasures. Talk about posthumous indignity. I wouldn't be surprised to hear about the King Tut curse striking again.

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