Tuesday,25 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1388, (5 - 11 April 2018)
Tuesday,25 September, 2018
Issue 1388, (5 - 11 April 2018)

Ahram Weekly

The truth about Tutankhamun

False criticisms have been made of the current travelling Tutankhamun exhibition that show no respect for the facts, writes Zahi Hawass

The truth about Tutankhamun

The Ministry of Antiquities announced last year that part of the treasures of the ancient Egyptian boy-king Tutankhamun would travel as “Tutankhamun: The Treasures of the Golden Boy” to the United States to be exhibited at the California Science Centre in Los Angeles. The exhibition would then travel to nine major cities in America, Europe and Australia, and end in the city of Osaka in Japan, it said. Since the exhibition has been the subject of much scrutiny in the media, I would like to tackle some of the criticism in this article.

The exhibition includes some 150 objects from the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square, not the 166 objects from the treasures of Tutankhamun stated in the media. It is necessary to highlight the difference between the total number of objects and the total registration numbers. For example, in the exhibition there is a small board game called senet, which some think is similar to the modern game of chess. This game has 13 registration numbers because the board of the game has one number, and its drawer has a number, and the pieces that are used to play it each have a number. Therefore, the total number of registered items for this one piece is 13 and not one. 


The truth about Tutankhamun

The exhibition also includes five boxes that once belonged to the boy-king. These are registered under 10 numbers, one for the lid of each box and one for the box itself. One of the king’s sandals has two numbers. There are five golden finger covers and five golden toe covers in the exhibition. These will be exhibited as two objects, but in fact they have 10 registration numbers. This is the case for most of the artefacts in the exhibition, which though consisting of one object in fact are registered by multiple numbers. 

There are 13 reed arrows in the exhibition, and each has its own registration number. In short, the exhibition does not contain 166 objects, but 150, and the difference between the number and the object has been explained. Any specialist in museum studies will confirm the difference between an archaeological object and a registration number.

There has also been some false talk about the minister of antiquities in the media. Some people have demanded that he be reprimanded because he has allowed unique objects to leave the country in the exhibition. I am sorry to say that those criticising the minister do not know the truth, and they have not attempted to find out the facts. The truth is that the objects are not as unique as some claim, and they have parallels. The statue of the boy-king placed above a panther has a parallel item, currently in the Egyptian Museum, which was also found in the tomb. The statue of the boy-king striding above a papyrus boat also has a matching piece from the tomb. The statue with the jackal head and the statue with the head of a hawk have parallels from the tomb. The canopic coffinette, only 29cm in length, is one of four, and the other three remain in the Egyptian Museum.

Some have claimed that Tutankhamun’s coffin is one of the objects on display in the exhibition. This accusation is simply not true. There are five wooden food vessels in the exhibition, but these are from a collection of 100. The statue of Ka in the exhibition has a twin as well, the only difference being in the head cover. The pair of gloves on display is part of a five-pair collection. The rings, collars, and amulets that are travelling have many parallels from the tomb that are now in the museum where anyone can go to see them. The same applies to the boy-king’s bed, two boats and headrests. A beautiful alabaster vessel with a long neck is travelling, and this has a copy in the museum as well.


The truth about Tutankhamun

The new Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM) near the Giza Plateau will be ready to receive the remaining collection soon. These objects will be exhibited without those in the travelling exhibition. I must emphasise here that 5,398 objects were found in the tomb of Tutankhamun, and the travelling objects will not affect what will be shown at the GEM. In reality, what was exhibited from the Tutankhamun collection in the Egyptian museum was only one-third of the total number of objects, and the rest were until recently stored in Luxor.

The exhibition has many benefits, and the company responsible is an expert in the field. The director of the exhibitions department of the IMG company that is organising the tour is John Norman, founder and president of Exhibitions International which was recently acquired by IMG. I am dismayed that some people have claimed that the company and its director are corrupt. They say it will make millions and that Egypt will get nothing. They have even attacked the company and made allegations of fraud. These allegations are nothing but lies and rumours that have no factual evidence to support them.

Another mistake that has been made has been the claim that the present company is associated with the Danish company that organised an exhibition in Mexico. The latter was organised during the tenure of Ali Gaballah as secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), and the company refused to pay the costs of returning the objects to Egypt, in this case $15,000. The company said it had not made any money, and Egypt did not make any money from this exhibition either. 


The truth about Tutankhamun

However, Norman, then head of Exhibitions International, on this occasion paid for the transport that was supposed to have been paid for by the other company. It is not fair to say anything negative about him. He is one of the most honest people I have ever met and a very good person. I am very unhappy to see the rumours accusing him and his company of fraud. His company has had a very distinguished history in producing blockbuster international exhibitions about Pompeii, Heracleion, and the Titanic, among other subjects.

When I was head of the SCA, I contracted for three exhibitions with Exhibitions International from 2005 to 2011. All the objects that travelled on these occasions came back safely. One of these exhibitions contained 55 objects from the Tutankhamun collection and other objects chosen by Mohamed Saleh and Mamdouh Al-Damaty, the then director of the Egyptian Museum. The exhibition made $120 million that went towards the construction of the GEM. The company made $20 million, and Norman and his company participated in funding the first Children’s Museum in Egypt (in Heliopolis) that is now one of the largest in the Middle East. 

We created Egyptian tourist nights during the above-mentioned travelling exhibition that produced funds dedicated to the Children’s Museum. We didn’t pay anything, and we received a lot of money to undertake new projects and bring more tourists to Egypt. At that time, in 2010, there were no rooms in hotels and no tour buses available because everything was fully booked. The records of the Ministry of Tourism will confirm that archaeological exhibitions abroad bring tourism to Egypt, and at the present time this is much needed.


The truth about Tutankhamun

I am making these points because some people have been spreading untruths, saying that these exhibitions are sent abroad, and the objects never come back. However, this is certainly not the first time we have sent exhibitions abroad. Indeed, we have sent out four Tutankhamun exhibits since 1961, and the objects all came back safe and sound. Moreover, the Ministry of Antiquities has also sent exhibitions about Islamic objects to Canada, underwater archaeology to the US (Saint Louis, Missouri), and treasures of the Pyramids to Japan. One thing that can help bring back the cultural power and tourism to Egypt is the present exhibition about the wonders of Tutankhamun.

We need to understand that the reason for sending this exhibition abroad now is to prepare for the celebration of the centennial of the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb. The decision was made to transform this into an international cultural event that would tour the world to encourage people to come to Egypt in 2022. 

I would also like to say that when I was head of the SCA I made rules that are still in use today. These state the need for ample and appropriate insurance coverage for travelling objects, the cost of which is to be borne by the international companies, as well as appropriate shipping and packing expenses. The company dealing with the ministry for any exhibition needs to provide a guarantee that the objects are going to return and that the insurance taken out will cover any untoward events.

My name has been mentioned among the untruths circulating about the present exhibition. Some have said that I am the one benefiting from this exhibition and that I have contracted to give 100 lectures abroad for $1 million. Why spread such lies without any evidence? I have travelled everywhere, advocating in Egypt’s name wherever I go. After I left my position at the SCA, I signed a contract with an Egyptian-Polish company to give lectures in Egypt to American groups about the Sphinx and the Luxor Temple. Thousands came to hear me. Indeed, more than 6,000 people came through this company in spite of the fact that many were afraid to come to Egypt. I didn’t do any of this for money, but I did do it all for my love and passion for the archaeology of Egypt. When I lecture in the US, at least 3,000 people attend at the price of $150 and sometimes $50. The tickets are sold out after two days. Who better to advocate for Egypt and Egyptian archaeology but one of the country’s own citizens?

Finally, I would like to say that all this talk is by naysayers who want to see Egypt’s downfall, rather than hope for its success. They have said that if the objects travel, the plane will crash and the objects will be lost. I don’t think that anyone in their right mind would say that because accidents happen this should prevent us from sending exhibitions abroad. Should we refuse to send exhibitions because the cities they’re sent to have a history of volcanic activities or earthquakes? Museums in such areas take this into account in their design and in the mounting of objects.

Some have claimed that the Louvre Museum in Paris does not send exhibitions abroad, but this is false. It has exhibitions abroad all the time, and there is one currently on show in the National Museum of Iran in Tehran. I appeal to all Egyptians to check their facts before making criticisms. Love your country and continuously advocate for its advancement. The golden name of Tutankhamun will always make people realise that on this great land of Egypt the most important ancient civilisation was born.

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