Tom Lubbock: Tutankhamun deserves more showbiz and less authenticity

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The Independent Online

He's back. Some 35 years after he last appeared at the British Museum, 85 years after his tomb was broken open by the British explorer Howard Carter, and 3,330 years after he was buried, the boy Pharaoh, Nebkheperure Tutankhamun Hekaiunushema, returns to London tomorrow.

A display of 130 treasures from the tombs of King Tut and his immediate family is to open at the O2/Millennium Dome. The rumour was that, compared to the scholarly British Museum exhibit of a generation ago, Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs was going to be a much more showbiz affair – not so much Tutankhamun as Tutankhabut.

Would that be so wrong? The ancient Egyptians obviously believed in the power of bling. So do we still.

Besides, Tutankhamun was always a glamorous pharaoh. A very minor king in his time, he owes all of his celebrity to the glories of his tomb, and its much-publicised discovery, perfectly intact, in 1922.

I remember that I was taken to that show as a child, and being told that it was very important. But of the show itself I remember absolutely nothing.

And when I think of all the parties of kids who are going to be marched off to see this new one, I can only feel that, far from being too showbiz, the O2 show isn't nearly showbiz enough.

For one thing, there are going to be some things you won't see that you may be expecting to. You won't see the famous golden burial mask, which was the centrepiece of the exhibition in the British Museum. The cunning publicity for the O2 show half suggests that you will see it. But what the posters actually illustrate is a very magnified close-up of the head of a miniature coffin that contained his innards, which is on view.

And you won't see his mummified body, or the face behind the mask – which has been the subject of much publicity in the papers. Instead, the show has an audiovisual section devoted to the subject. Both items are much too precious to travel from Egypt.

What you will see is a pretty good collection of statues and statuettes, shrines and pieces of furniture, musical instruments, pots, ankh crosses and model boats, including the magnificent gilded coffin of Tjuya. There's plenty of gleaming gold, and luminous blue faience, and sombre granite.

You enter the exhibition into deep darkness, a room in which the only glow comes from a looming stone effigy of Tutankhamun, picked out by a spotlight.

There are a few other special effects. You walk up to the carved head of Tut's dad, Akhenaten, through a short colonnade of fibreglass pillars. And as you approach the climax of the show, a display of miscellaneous artefacts from Tut's own tomb – a diadem, a dagger, an inlaid necklace – the lighting becomes dimmer, and video screens start flickering, and a recorded choir supplies a solemn ethereal chant.

It's an odd mix, and an uninspiring one. You get the genuine, 3,000-year-old wonders to gaze at – or at any rate you get a small and random selection of them. And you see them in a completely inauthentic presentation, basically a standard museum display of objects isolated in glass boxes, but with a bit of added atmosphere. Can we do better?

Of course we can. As is plain from any Hollywood film, we live in an unprecedented age of replication technology.

Forget about authentic-ity. We aren't archaeologists. There are two sights that any visitor to this show really wants to see, but which we can't because they don't now exist in their original state. We want to see the burial chamber of Tutankhamun as it was when Howard Carter first looked into it. And we want to see Tutankhamun's sarcophagus, with its complex Russian-doll structure of nested shrines, coffins and ornaments, and the mummy at its core.

The burial chamber could be recreated in an actual-size reconstruction. Mean-while, the sarcophagus could be displayed by a combination of cut-away life-size models and CGI animations (the O2 show has a very half-hearted attempt at the latter). That would be a Tut show for the 21st century.

Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs is showing at the O2/Millennium Dome, from tomorrow until 30 August, every day.

www.visitlondon.com/tut or 0844 844 0003; adults Fri-Sun £20, Mon-Thur £15; children Fri-Sun £10; Mon-Thur £7.50; Family (2 adults, 2 children) Fri-Sun £50, Mon-Thur £45.

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