The golden sandals King Tut wore to his afterlife evoke the strangest description for objects of antiquity: They're like new. The reed patterns carved into their soles, barely wider than a human hair, are so pristine and luminescent that it's difficult to imagine they were on a decomposing body for 3,000 years. The appearance of newness dominates Tutankhamun: The Golden King and the Great Pharaohs, a traveling exhibition at the Pacific Science Center that sold 90,000 tickets here before opening last week.
Nearly all of the show's 100-plus objects appear hyperreal in the level of detail that remains carved and painted onto their surfaces at this point in their histories. Unworn limestone figures maintain defined musculature. Intricately beaded necklaces stretch across the display cases in perfectly symmetrical formations. Low-relief cartouches are starkly legible. The level of restoration indicated by the condition of the objects implies substantial expense, and Tutankhamun had ample funds from its for-profit organizer, Arts & Exhibitions International, a division of the AEG megacorporation. A distinctly manufactured sensibility is embedded within the pyramid-architecture-inspired text panels and strictly factual object descriptions.
Missing the cracks and wear of real time, the gritty aspect of adventure escapes these freshly restored artifacts. And due largely to the famous 1970s exhibition The Treasures of Tutankhamun—the first museum blockbuster ever, seen by more than eight million Americans between 1976 and 1979—much of this iconography already permeates cultural consciousness, so there is less to "discover" from the start. In the absence of both unfamiliarity and visual signs of authenticity, the expectation that the new exhibition can inspire the fascination of the original becomes a tall order.
The title is misleading. Fewer than half of the artifacts in Tutankhamun were Tut's. The rest were affiliated with other pharaohs of significance (including Amenhotep III, Hatshepsut, and Tut's father, Akhenaten). Still, the layout of Tutankhamun: The Golden King and the Great Pharaohs positions the collection from Tut's tomb as the show's climax. After getting the other artifacts out of the way in simpler displays, an extended ramp ceremoniously leads to a set of galleries marked by stone arches, each containing a dozen or so of Tut's belongings. The iconic funeral mask is not here, so taking its place at center stage is a similar but much smaller canopic coffinette, used for storage of the stomach. King Tut's bed serves as another focal point, evoking more a sense of celebrity fetish than archaeological discovery.
In contrast, the smallest gallery of the pharaohs' objects quietly precedes the collection of Tut's tomb. Shrouded in the purple glow of black lights, a set of luscious, golden accessories displayed in black cases levitate around the stunning funerary mask of Psusennes I, also cast in solid, glowing gold. "Take a moment to enjoy the beautiful golden objects in this room," booms the aging voice of Harrison Ford on the audio guide.
Although Ford's narration failed to inspire the spirit of Indiana Jones at any other point in the exhibition, this little gallery is the one moment in which the inherent wonder of an experience with powerful objects becomes spectacular. Unlike the artificial suspense built by the push into the final tomb, happening upon these golden objects relatively untainted by expectations feels authentic. The King Tut of the 1970s will never be back, regardless of the money spent, due to the damage done to the original collection. So as museums increasingly turn to packaged exhibitions and financial sources with financial motives, uncovering the meaning of cultural objects more often needs to be done—or feel like it's done—with our own hands.