2/19 King Tut and the Blockbuster

Why did millions of Americans stand in line for up to five hours to catch a glimpse of an ancient boy-king’s funerary gear, inspiring the only Saturday Night Live sketch ever to be based on a museum exhibition?

Here are the images we’ll be looking at.


(warning! This video is from 1978, and in some ways it has not aged well. Students at Reed College were angry when their professor showed it in class a few years ago. I don’t know know how she framed it, or what the larger discussion was. I’m including it here because in my opinion, Steve Martin’s critique of the King Tut exhibition was astute and in many ways quite progressive and ahead of its time. I believe that accusing him of cultural appropriation misses the more systemic issue, which is explored in the readings. I also don’t buy the argument that gold face is blackface. If I did, I wouldn’t post the video. But I welcome you to form your own opinions either way, and to share them in the comment box.)

Two model answers to today’s exam question: Both the Victory Stele of Naram-Sin and the treasures from Tut’s tomb were appropriated by powerful people thousands of years after their creation. Whose actions in the recent history of the Tut treasures are most similar to those of Shutruk-Nahhunte (the Elamite king)? Explain why you think so. 

Answer 1: Shutruk-Nahhunte, the Elamite king, added an inscription to the Victory Stele of Naram-Sin which wrote about his own glory and talks about his battle victory against Sippar. He uses this ancient artwork to legitimize his own power and to help unify his kingdom of today. Perhaps this could be seen as defacing a work of art, but the king marked the relic anyways to promote his own political agenda, empowering himself and his kingdom. This relates directly to the Egyptian government, who allowed the relics from King Tut’s relics to go on a world tour of sorts, raising money that would go back to the government to help finance renovations to the long-beleaguered Cairo Museum. Perhaps the Egyptian government sold out by sending these valuables around the country and maybe dishonored the life of the young Pharoah. Steve Martin put this well when he said that the Pharoah died for tourism. But the government did this because they were strapped for money, and this was an easy avenue for raising funds. Perhaps allowing the treasures of King Tut’s tomb to be spread around the world wasn’t the most honorable decision, as the treasures could have been damaged or stolen, but they did this to raise interest in Egyptian culture (which most likely boosted future tourism sales) and to raise the $9 million as reported in the Hindley reading.

Answer 2: In my opinion, the actions of Nixon and Henry Kissinger are most similar to Shutruk Nahhunte. Nahhunte appropriated this relief and left his own written words on the relief instead of destroying it. This was an act of reappropriation, as a way to depict the power of the king thousands of years later. The Elamite king became the one who controlled the new narrative, rewriting and utilizing this relief go the Victory Stele of Naram Sin for his own personal political gain, to demonstrate power, influence, and . Similarly, the Nixon administration utilized the items from King Tut’s tomb as a way to showcase and forge diplomatic relations with Egypt. They used the blockbuster exhibition as a way to shape public opinion, and captured a huge audience. The Nixon-Sadat agreement allowed for this “gift” from Egypt to be utilized to display, voyeuristically, the new relations with Egypt that were not just based around oil and war. While the museums and the curators of the six cities in the US used this opportunity to capitalize on the attention, selling merchandise and as Steve Martin pokes fun at, continues to perpetuate the white male colonial gaze on foreign powers. All of these exhibitions and attention stems from Nixon and Kissinger’s desire to craft public opinion, not around King Tut but around their own political agenda. They controlled this narrative, like the Elamite King did with the stele for their own purposes.

Notify of
1 Comment
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments