As nation-rockingly successful as the “Treasures of Tutankhamun” tour of the late 1970s was, no American city took Tut to its bosom more dearly than New York. The Big Apple could claim an early, if not quite ancient, connection to the boy king: it was a photographer affiliated with the city’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, Harry Burton, who made Howard Carter’s discoveries in the Valley of Kings real to the world, by documenting with his camera the archaeologist’s excavation of the tomb. Though Burton was an Englishman, he had, since 1914, been employed by the Metropolitan, and its Egyptian Expedition in particular, to photograph whatever discoveries the museum’s team came across. In November 1922, he was working with a Met-sponsored excavation group when Carter first glimpsed “everywhere, the glint of gold.”
Quickly, it was worked out that the museum would loan Burton to Team Tutankhamun. Fifty-six years later, the Metropolitan Museum was the last official stop on the epic 1970s tour’s itinerary. Tut-mania had been building and building since the treasures had made landfall in America in 1976, and, New York being by its nature an impatient kind of place, the city was downright twitchy with excitement and anticipation. Though the exhibiton did not open at the Met until December 15, 1978, the first tickets were made available in September. That it rained that day didn’t matter – the line of eager Tut-maniacs stretched down Fifth Avenue from the museum’s entrance on 82nd Street all the way down to 59th Street.
The Met, also anticipating a surge in telephone orders, took care to add extra phone lines and personnel to handle the rush – not that these new hires were necessarily well-schooled in matters Tutankhamun. One woman calling in to the museum’s hotline was surprised to hear an operator answer by proclaiming, “Trip to the moon!” “Trip to the moon?” the woman asked. “Have they connected me to the planetarium?” “No,” the operator said, “I can’t pronounce that long name, so I just say ‘Trip to the moon.’”Once the Tut show was actually open, the lines to get into the Met became a subculture unto themselves, rich material for camera-wielding news crews and local reporters. The New York Times published an “About New York” column that led with the story of a woman whose husband began to suffer chest pains as they were on the verge of gaining admittance to the exhibition. Before bundling into an ambulance with him, she sought assurance from museum officials that she could retake her place in line when her spouse’s medical emergency was resolved.
In this same period, an unnamed Met official told the Associated Press, “Seeing Tut is the status symbol right now in this city. It’s even superseded sex.” “A craze on this scale belongs more properly to the province of social pathology than to the realm of art criticism,” harrumphed the Times art critic, Hilton Kramer, who complained of being “jostled by the crowds on his own turf” when he showed up to do his job. Nevertheless, even Kramer, never the jolliest of critics, proclaimed the exhibition “quite nice to look at.”
In the 21st century, another traveling exhibition of artifacts from Tut’s tomb, “Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs,” landed in New York, drawing crowds at Discovery Times Square in 2010. And the exhibiton you’re currently visiting, “The Discovery of King Tut,” with its exquisitely colorized versions of Harry Burton’s photographs, brings the Tut-NYC relationship full-circle. But it’s important to remember that New York City was only just emerging from a deep fiscal crisis when Tut paid his first fateful visit in 1978. Back in 1975, the city’s then mayor, Abraham Beame, and the then governor of New York state, Hugh Carey, had traveled down to Washington to plead with President Gerald Ford for federal assistance for the nearly bankrupt city. Ford demurred, telling the mayor and governor that the city was on its own, prompting the infamous New York Daily News headline FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD.
New York managed its way out of the crisis, but the city’s recovery was still in a fragile state in the late ’70s. After the Tut show departed the Met in April of 1979, the museum commissioned a survey that revealed, to its officials’ everlasting pride, that the “Treasures
of Tutankhamun” exhibition, over the course of its New York stay, pumped $111 million into the city’s economy, taking into account money spent by Tut-goers on hotels, restaurants, shopping, and transportation.
A professor of psychiatry at the city’s Albert Einstein College of Medicine was asked at the time to explain New York’s embrace of the Tut relics. He responded that “the astonishing purity of the art negates the death and dissolution surrounding it.” Most likely, the professor was alluding to the mesmerising beauty of a bunch of objects that had been, in point of fact, originally assembled for funerary and burial purposes. But he may as well have been talking about the near-death and near-dissolution of New York City itself – and the way that King Tut, in the sparkling beauty of his mask and the flights of imagination he prompted, had provided New Yorkers with the perfect pick-me-up.