King Tut’s Forgotten First American Tour


By Steven Rosen /2005 / Los Angeles CityBeat

There’s a common misconception about King Tut.

Yes, he really is dead.

And, yes, the current “Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of Pharoahs” exhibition at Los Angeles County Museum of Art is a sequel to the famous 1976-1979 “Treasures of Tutankhamum” tour that lured some 8 million visitors to seven American museums. That one is considered the first of the blockbusters – the dawning of the modern era of museum exhibitions.

But contrary to popular opinion, that was not the first show devoted to the Boy King to tour American museums. There was an earlier one called “Tutankhamun Treasures: A Loan Exhibition from the Department of Antiquities of the United Arab Republic.”

It toured 16 American museums – including Los Angeles – from 1961 to 1963, under the auspices of the Smithsonian Institution and American Association of Museums. It even had a catalogue whose cover looks remarkably similar to one of the current show’s featured objects. It is of a miniature gold coffinettes, in the shape of the king, that originally contained the mummified Tut’s embalmed internal organs.

“No one seems to talk about that one,” says John Norman, whose Arts and Exhibitions International helped design and produce the current show. He was not aware of the 1961-1963 exhibition until contacted for this story.

The show was not as large as the subsequent two. All the objects were small, the biggest being only 20 inches tall. The number of objects, too, was smaller – 34 were on display, whereas the 1976-1979 exhibition had 55, including the show-stopping golden death mask. The current show features 50 objects from King Tut’s tomb, plus another 70 ancient Egyptian artifacts.

But it was a major show for its time. Jackie Kennedy was photographed by the Washington Post at its first stop, the National Gallery of Art. Some 118,403 people attended the Los Angeles County Museum during its November, 1962, visit. (The museum in Exposition Park had three divisions – science, art and history – until LACMA moved into its Wilshire Boulevard site in 1965. The remaining divisions are now the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.)

“That first show was of Tut miniatures – it was a mini-show,” says George Kuwayama, LACMA’s retired curator of Oriental art (which included Egyptian art). “But it was a spectacularly popular show. There were lines going around the block. Mummymania is innate in human beings.” He says he also believes that admission was 50 cents and that several of that show’s objects are in the current exhibition.

Overall, 1.112 million people saw the show in Washington, Philadelphia, New Haven, Houston, Omaha, Chicago, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Cleveland, Boston, St. Louis, Baltimore and Dayton. (Statistics aren’t available for two other stops – Detroit and Toledo.)

Memories seem to have receded from the public consciousness – and institutional records – in Los Angeles, where it was difficult to find anyone who remembered the show. (A reader originally contacted CityBeat; LACMA’s Nancy Thomas – who co-curated “Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharoahs” but wasn’t familiar with the 1960s-era show – suggested Kuwayama as a source.)

But fortunately that’s not the case at the Dayton Art Institute. Its website features a message from the director boasting that “we hosted the first King Tut show in 1961.” (Actually, it was in Dayton in 1963.)

“Our archivist is worth her weight in gold,” says that director, Alexander Lee Nyerges, in a telephone interview.

From studying the museum records, he was able to report that each participating museum paid $4,575 for the show and the insurance premium for its objects was $50,000. (Norman has said the current show is insured for $650 million.) Dayton attracted 30,000 visitors – outstanding for the time.

“The purpose was to draw attention to the creation of the Aswan Dam (in Egypt),” Nyerges explains. “Money was being raised around the world to save the temples at Abu Simbel. The American government took the lead along with UNESCO.”

To prevent the rising waters of Aswan High Dam on the Nile River from submerging the four huge statues on the facade of Pharaoh Ramses II’s temple, the monument was cut into large blocks and relocated above the new water line. Besides being a massive engineering project, it was a landmark in Cold War-era international cooperation, especially in the Mideast.

And “Tutankhamum Treasures” was part of that.

6 thoughts on “King Tut’s Forgotten First American Tour

  1. My Dad took my sister and I to the First King Tut Exhibit in LA Nov ‘62, I was 8 years old I remember the fascinating feeling the Whole day! The drive up from Orange County, Huntington Beach. Dad knew back routes and dirt Allie’s being raised in East LA! My Love for museums began that day! So no, I’ll never forget seeing historical art in front of my eyes. My dad also explained about saving Historical items from The Aswan Dam project.

  2. Thank you for confirming my memory of an exhibit at the Detroit Institute of Arts when I was a child of 9 or 10. I wanted to be an archaeologist and this was my first exposure to the treasures of Egypt.

  3. I was at the Cleveland Ohio exhibit. I was 12. My dad took me with older cousins and uncles. It is hard to find info on that tour. It was very memorable.

      • Steven, I’m also a ‘Donna’ and found this a couple years ago. Signed up for notice when comments were posted and saw this response today. I attended the San Francisco showing. Lived in Sonoma County and I think family friends were afraid I wasn’t getting any culture! Not sure if it was the same time/visit but they also took me to what was left of the Sutro Baths and went to the Ice Capades. Thanks for posting and bringing back grand old memories.

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