Treasures of Tutankhamun exhibit opens at Seattle Center on July 15, 1978.

  • By Eleanor Boba
  • Posted 5/21/2018
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20564

On July 15, 1978, Treasures of Tutankhamun, an exhibit of 55 artifacts from the famous tomb of the Egyptian pharaoh, opens at the Seattle Center Flag Pavilion, where it will run until November 15. Tut fever has been sweeping the United States since 1976, when Treasures of Tutankhamun began its tour of seven American cities. The Seattle Art Museum (SAM), the host organization for the tour's fifth stop, like sponsoring institutions in the other cities, mounts a full-scale effort to publicize and capitalize on Seattle's first blockbuster cultural exhibit. The immediate effect of the show is a craze for all things Egyptian. Longer-term results include new prestige for the Queen City as a tourist destination and renewed impetus for the dream of a downtown art museum, which will be realized a decade later.

International Diplomacy, Cultural Phenomenon

Treasures of Tutankhamun owed its inception to three presidents (and many other people, of course). United States President Richard Nixon (1913-1994), just a few months shy of his abrupt departure from office, traveled to Egypt to negotiate a bilateral agreement with that country's President Anwar Sadat (1918-1981). Along with addressing other matters, such as peace in the Middle East, the pact included provision for an American tour of artifacts from the tomb of the pharaoh Tutankhamun (ca. 1341 B.C. - ca. 1323 B.C.) famously unearthed by British archaeologist Howard Carter (1874-1939) in 1922. In exchange, the United States would remit a share of retail sales to Egypt to help renovate the Cairo Museum, the home of the Tut trove.

The third president involved was Gerald Ford (1913-2006), who succeeded to the office following Nixon's 1974 resignation and signed the Arts and Artifacts Indemnity Act in 1975, overcoming a major hurdle to the Tut exhibition -- how to insure priceless treasures from damage and loss. A year later curators from the U.S. and Egypt selected 55 artifacts for the journey -- the number symbolic of the number of years, roughly, since the Carter found and opened the long-sought tomb of Tutankhamun (the name has also been spelled Tutankhamen).

The tour was planned to coincide with America's bicentennial celebration in 1976. The show opened first at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., on November 17, 1976. The U.S. State Department, in consultation with Egyptian authorities, asked the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to coordinate the tour. Funding to underwrite the traveling costs was obtained from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Exxon Corporation, and the Robert Wood Johnson Jr. Charitable Trust.

Tutmania

It is impossible to overstate the phenomenon that was Tut during the run of the exhibition. As Egyptomania goes, perhaps it can only be compared to the excitement that greeted the discovery and unveiling of the young pharaoh's tomb in 1922.

In the late 1970s, during and immediately after the Treasures exhibit, Tut appeared in movies, documentaries, television series, cartoons, and an unforgettable bit of Americana -- comedian Steve Martin's costumed musical send-up, "King Tut," which premiered on Saturday Night Live on April 22, 1978. ("Now if I'd known they'd line up just to see him/I'd have taken all my money and bought me a museum.")

Leonard Nimoy devoted an episode of his show In Search of ... to examining the alleged Tut curse. On the Rockford Files, Jim Rockford (played by James Garner) mounted a fake Tut exhibit to entrap a corrupt businessman ("Never Send a Boy King to Do a Man's Job.") The 1978 film Death on the Nile, featuring Peter Ustinov as Hercule Poirot, had nothing to do with King Tut, but was released in the United States with his image on the poster. Meanwhile on Hawaii Five-O Steve McGarrett (Jack Lord) investigated the theft of the famous Tut mask from a fictional exhibit in Honolulu ("Death Mask").

The Queen City Meets the Boy King

While the exhibit did not travel to Hawaii, it did touch down in six U.S. cities in addition to Washington, D.C. -- Chicago, New Orleans, Los Angeles, Seattle, New York, and San Francisco (a last-minute addition). In Seattle the show ran from July 15 to November 15, 1978. Being fifth of the seven stops on the Tut tour, Seattle was able to learn from the experience of others. All signs pointed to a massive turn-out, estimated at three-quarters of a million visitors over the four-month period.

The Seattle Art Museum had the honor of hosting the exhibition, along with the responsibility. Ewen C. Dingwall (1913-1996), who had been the general manager of the 1962 Seattle World's Fair, was given the job of heading up the massive operation, with the underwhelming title of "coordinator." Dingwall reported to a special Tut Committee of the SAM board and museum director Willis Woods (d. 1979).

Right away it was clear that SAM had both a challenge and an opportunity. Unlike the other institutions where the exhibit had been mounted, SAM, at that time in its original Volunteer Park location, did not have the space to devote to an adequate showing, nor did it have anything close to sufficient parking. Rather than developing a cumbersome system of bussing patrons in, the museum opted to go off-site for exhibition space. The Tut Committee chose to rent the Flag Pavilion, an under-used relic of the Seattle World's Fair in the heart of the Seattle Center.

Funds from the United States Department of Commerce paid for necessary improvements to the Flag Pavilion and the museum's Modern Art Pavilion, a smaller exhibit space on the Seattle Center grounds. Additionally, the City of Seattle, King County, the arts-funding nonprofit PONCHO, and the Weyerhaeuser Foundation contributed financially to mounting of exhibit. Many others offered consultation, services, and equipment.

Tut Invades Seattle

As the exhibit toured the nation, a fervor for Ancient Egypt swept through the arts, fashion, interior design, and all things retail. In Seattle, newspaper advertisements reflected the demand: Ads for carpets, home décor, jewelry, and, of course, Camel cigarettes -- all jumped on the Tut train. A whiskey distillery offered a decanter shaped like the Tut death mask. A travel agent invited the public to "Phone us for the lowest 'pharaohs' anywhere" (Triumph Travel ad). The first week of the exhibit was hailed as "Welcome to Tut Week" by the Downtown Seattle Development Association, which organized special festivities at Westlake Mall.

Seattle's glitterati enthusiastically took part. PONCHO got an early start with a Tut-themed fundraiser in April. The Seattle Art Museum organized the "Tut Strut" benefit gala on July 14, the day before the opening. Seattle Times reporter Peyton Whitely assured his readers that "The Tut Strut will be one of THE parties of the season, bringing together the city's beautiful people just before the Tut exhibit opens" ("Royers Will Strut ..."). Invitees were informed, "Festive dress -- head dress optional" (Invitation). The mayor and his wife planned to step out in Egyptian garb, Charles Royer (b. 1939) in a vest and tie with Egyptian motifs, Roseanne Royer in a full Egyptian sheath dress. Attendees were allowed a sneak peek at the exhibit while ice pyramids melted in the party tent set up on the grounds of the Seattle Center.

Mayor Royer proclaimed July 15, 1978, "Seattle Art Museum Day in Seattle" thanks to the "landmark" Treasures of Tutankhamun. In his speech at the exhibit opening, Royer mused about the future:

"I'm looking forward to another opening ceremony, at the other end of the Monorail, at Westlake. There, in the middle of Seattle, we'll have a really accessible, human center for art, a development that represents the kind of sensible, people-oriented growth that Seattle is committed to" (Royer, "Speech ...").

Seattle's perennial summer festival, Seafair, did not escape. The theme of the 1978 Torchlight Parade was "A Salute to King Tut." The Rainier District's float, the "Glory of Egypt," took both the King Neptune Trophy for best float and the special Golden Tutankhamun Award.

Entering the Tomb

Treasures of Tutankhamun was configured to mimic the layout of the tomb itself and its five rooms -- corridor, antechamber, burial chamber, treasury, and annex. Artifacts were placed in the space corresponding to the chamber in which they had been discovered. Photomurals created by the Metropolitan Museum of Art from original glass-plate negatives taken by museum photographer Harry Burton (1879-1940) during Howard Carter's 1922 excavation of the tomb were placed on the walls to re-create the atmosphere of the newly opened tomb. One of them showed Tut's unwrapped mummy in situ, some consolation for those who might have expected to see an actual mummy.

The first object visitors laid eyes on when entering was a wooden image of Tut, the same artifact Carter viewed in his first glimpse into the antechamber. Other popular objects were the slinky statuette of the goddess Selket, an alabaster unguent vase in the shape of a rearing lion, the canopic "coffins" that held Tut's internal organs, and, of course, the piece that came to symbolize the entire exhibit -- the gold death mask of Tutankhamun.

Specially commissioned music by UCLA music professor A. J. Racy, performed on traditional Egyptian instruments, played continually. According to Dingwall, the music was "quite similar to what might have been heard in the Tut dynasty period and seemed to help create a widely commented-upon hushed atmosphere -- almost one of reverence -- in exhibition areas" ("Final Reports ..., V"). Apparently not everyone shared that reverence: Dingwall reported a rumor that security guards drew lots for the privilege of shooting out the sound system at the end of the run.

SAM had the luxury of 50 percent more space, 19,000 square feet, at the Flag Pavilion than the exhibit had occupied at other venues. As a result, more artifacts could be displayed in freestanding cases, rather than against walls or in corners. Despite this, and a cap of 1,000 people in the exhibit space at any given time, visitors complained of crowded conditions.

Not everyone was captivated by the exhibit itself. Twink Weber, the art critic for the Eastside's Daily Journal-American, found nits to pick with the layout, the color scheme, and the choice of objects, as well as "the tastelessness of the 'Tut as a total experience' obsession," hinted at discord between SAM and officials at the Seattle Center, and concluded that perhaps SAM was not up to the task:

"One can't help but be disappointed at the manner in which the Seattle Art Museum has conducted itself, but perhaps that's to be expected when a relatively small organization takes on an exhibition that's been publicized to herculean proportions" (Weber).

However, most folks in Seattle and throughout the region disagreed. Just after it closed, Deloris Tarzan, the Seattle Time's art critic, raved about the exhibit, while acknowledging the press of the crowd:

"Some may have become weary of the hoopla attached to the exhibition, but no one was laughing at or bored with the workmanship and design of the tomb objects themselves ... The delicate jewelry, the golden figures and the curved alabaster possess the kind of workmanship in which there is something new to see each time one looks" ("The Party's Over ...").

Terry Faw, a young psychology professor at Lewis and Clark College, made the trip up from Portland to see Tut with a group of alumni. Forty years later he recalled being struck by the opulence of the golden artifacts: "I was taken aback by the craftsmanship reflected in these objects created so long ago and challenged in my attempts to construct an image of what the people and culture must have been like" (Faw).

The great majority of visitors who left comments in the visitor's registry praised the exhibit. Exceptions included one fellow who wrote "No one had the write [sic] to dig these things up and display them for profit" and another who stated "It was a fake, you can't fool me" (Evans).

Something for Everyone

During the run of Tut, SAM officials took steps to make the exhibit available and accessible to as many folks as possible. They devised a ticketing strategy that mirrored that of the art museum itself: $1 general admission; 50 cents for students and the elderly; free to SAM members and to the disabled; free admission on Thursdays; Mondays and early mornings reserved for group tours; public evening viewing hours three times a week. Tickets were sold on-site for "day-of" entry at staggered times. And no, you could not order tickets by phone. The sheer size of the demand led to some tweaking -- hours were expanded on some days to as much as 17. The one-ticket per customer policy was changed to five. To forestall frustration, special monitors were installed around the Seattle Center grounds and downtown indicating if tickets remained available for the day.

SAM partnered with Grey Line Tours to arrange viewings by out-of-town visitors. The museum worked with Community Services for the Blind to create special presentations and tours for the vision-impaired. An evening viewing for 125 hearing-impaired people was arranged in cooperation with Seattle Community College and the Community Service Center for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. And, of course, staff arranged many, many school field trips beginning in September. A total of 134,000 school children visited the Tut exhibit on free school tours, some coming from as far away as Alaska and Hawaii. Many classrooms embarked on fundraising activities to pay for the trip.

Nonprofit organizations, such as King County Parks and the Dorian Group, a gay-civil-rights organization, were encouraged to use group tours as fundraisers.

Shawabti

While SAM had long relied on a cadre of volunteers, the Tut exhibit required a broad expansion of volunteer recruitment, training, and management. More than 1,100 volunteers, affectionately called shawabti after painted servants found in Tut's tomb, sold tickets and merchandise, greeted visitors, hosted VIPS, manned the Tut "hotline," and collected chewing gum at the exhibit entrance. School teachers and college students on break helped out over the summer. Flight attendants on strike jumped in to help. SAM docents provided special programs and tours.

The Tut phone hotline was a critical piece of the operation. Although there were no phone ticket sales, volunteer operators logged around a thousand calls a day (double that in the waning days of the exhibit) answering such questions as "May I wear shorts?" and "Since I'm a relative of King Tut, can I get in for free?" (Belanger).

The day the exhibit closed, November 15, the Seattle Art Museum Guild held a party honoring the shawabti with music, dancing, and a last chance to view the exhibit.

Keeping It Classy

Treasures of Tutankhamun opened the door for numerous opportunities in merchandising. Officially, there were two gift shops on the Seattle Center grounds: The main exhibit store offering merchandise approved by the Metropolitan Museum, the exhibit's American tour organizer, and a second shop at SAM's Modern Art Pavilion. Both offered an assortment of reproductions, publications, and gift items. A replica of the Selket statuette was the most-popular purchase.

Exhibit organizers were keenly aware of the dangers of commercialism, especially in a public forum the size of the Seattle Center. Internal memos and guidelines testify to the desire of both SAM and Center officials to keep things under control, particularly in the volatile Center House (then the name of the old Armory building, known during and after the World's Fair as the Food Circus and later renamed the Seattle Center Armory). Merchants were required to obtain permission to sell any Tut-related trinkets. Apart from food vendors, hawkers were banned from the Center grounds. Meanwhile an entrepreneurial sort opened up a decidedly off-brand Tut store strategically located downtown under the Monorail on Westlake Avenue; Tutankhamun Treasures offered "authentic King Tut memorabilia, artfully crafted in enamel-like gold" ("Why Pay More?").

Wrapping It Up

Treasures of Tutankhamun outstripped all projections for attendance and revenue. In a series of "Final Reports" to the SAM trustees, officers, and staff, Ewen Dingwall cited "The Beautiful Numbers" ("Final Reports ..., VI"):

  • Nearly 1.3 million visitors viewed the exhibit -- at least 50 percent more than original estimates. More than half that number came from out of town to see Tut.
  • Gross sales for tickets, audio guides, and SAM merchandise totaled nearly $7 million.
  • An additional $2 million was spent on the official Tut merchandise shipped with the exhibit; these funds were earmarked for renovations at the Cairo Museum.
  • Membership in SAM quadrupled, at least in the short run.

Dingwall was somewhat vaguer on the question of net profit, writing that he expected "a substantial surplus" of $800,000 or more over the $3 million budget once all expenses were accounted for ("Final Reports ..., VI").

An economic impact study commissioned by SAM estimated that out-of-town visitors to the exhibit may have brought as much as $60 million dollars to Seattle. While acknowledging the unprecedented effort of the Tut staff and volunteers, Dingwall credited something deeper for the exhibition's success:

"No promotional wizardry could sustain such public attention and devotion. Tut provides a clear example in my view of the general public's near insatiable fascination with the unique, instructive, inspirational public events of highest quality" ("Final Reports ..., VI").

A Museum Grows Up

Treasures of Tutankhamun was not the first Tut exhibit at the Seattle Center (SAM mounted a smaller traveling exhibit, Tutankhamun Treasures, during the 1962 World's Fair), nor would it be the last (Tutankhamun: The Golden King and the Great Pharaohs was staged at the Pacific Science Center in 2012). It was, however, a significant watershed in the cultural history of Seattle and the institutional history of the Seattle Art Museum. It forced a medium-sized museum to think bigger and to develop new practices in marketing, publicity, ticketing, merchandising, volunteer recruitment, and curation. The success of these efforts paved the way for SAM to move to downtown Seattle. In 1986 voters approved a tax levy for a new SAM. Groundbreaking for the five-floor museum took place a decade following the Tut exhibit.

King Tut put Seattle on the map. In the immortal words of Steve Martin: "He gave his life for tourism" ("King Tut").


Sources:

Treasures of Tutankhamun, ed. by Katherine Stoddert Gilbert with Joan K. Holt and Sara Hudson (New York City: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1976); Charles Royer, "Speech: Opening of Treasures of King Tutankhamun Exhibit," typescript dated July 16, 1978, File 1, Box 14, Charles Royer Mayoral Records, 1968-1990, Subject Correspondence, 1978-1989, Record Series 5274-02, Seattle Municipal Archives; John Feary to Ewen C. Dingwall, April 19, 1978, File 5, Box 25, Seattle Center Assistant Director Records, 1966-1981, Record Series 7600-02, Seattle Municipal Archives; Ewen C. Dingwall, "Final Reports and Observations: I. SAM's Volunteers for Tut," typescript dated December 8, 1978, "Final Reports and Observations: II. Organization and Management," typescript dated December 16, 1978, "Final Reports and Observations: III. Services to Handicapped," typescript dated December 19, 1978, "Final Reports and Observations: IV. Education Programs/School Tours," typescript dated December 21, 1978, "Final Reports and Observations: V. The Achievement of Unique Quality," typescript dated December 21, 1978, "Final Reports and Observations: VI. And Finally, The Beautiful Numbers," typescript dated December 26, 1978, all in File 1, Box 14, Charles Royer Mayoral Records, 1968-1990, Subject Correspondence, 1978-1989, Record Series 5274-02, Seattle Municipal Archives; "Fact Sheet: 'Treasures of Tutankhamun,'" typescript dated October 19, 1977, file labeled "Seattle Art Museum: King Tut Exhibit," File 2, Box 84, Seattle Parks Superintendent Subject Files, 1936-1993, Record Series 5802-01, Seattle Municipal Archives; Annie Searle, "For Immediate Release: Seattle Art Museum's Brown Survey Projects Economic Impact of the Exhibit at $60,000,000," typescript dated March 23, 1979, file labeled "Public Relations," Box 4, Seattle Art Museum Collection, Accession No. 2636-020, Special Collections, University of Washington Libraries, Seattle, Washington; Invitation to "Tut Strut," file labeled "Public Relations," Box 4, Seattle Art Museum Collection, Accession No. 2636-020, Special Collections, University of Washington Libraries; Dorothy Neighbors, "Poncho's Golden Tut-ch," The Seattle Times, April 16, 1978, p. J-1; "Phone us for the lowest 'pharaohs' anywhere" (Triumph Travel ad), Ibid., July 9, 1978, Pictorial, p. 15; "Why Pay More? Buy at the King Tut Store" (Tutankhamun Treasures ad), Ibid., July 9, 1978, Pictorial, p. 41; Peyton Whitely, "Royers Will Strut Their Stuff Egyptian Style at Tut-Exhibit Party," July 10, 1978, Ibid., p. A-14; Peyton Whitely, "Tut 'Shakedown Cruise' Pleases Museum Staff," July 16, 1978, p. A-23; Deloris Tarzan, "They Truly Are Treasures," Ibid., July 16, 1978, p. M-1; Kimberlee Craig, "Kingly Parade, Traffic Jam," Ibid., August 5, 1978, p. 1; Deloris Tarzan, "New Ticket Policy Begins for King Tut's Treasures," Ibid., August 10, 1978, p. E-4; Walt Evans, "The Notable Points of King Tut's Display," Ibid., October 1, 1978, p. A-10; Peyton Whitely, "A Farewell Fete for Tut Treasures After Rich Visit," Ibid., November 11, 1978, p. A-7; Herb Belanger, "Tut's Going, but Museum Wants Volunteers to Stay," Ibid., November 11, 1978, p. A-10; Deloris Tarzan, "The Party's Over at Last; King Tut Is Off to New York," Ibid., November 17, 1978, Tempo, p. 3; Twink Weber, "Tutankhamun," Daily Journal-American, July 14, 1978, p. 1; Terry Faw, Facebook message to Eleanor Boba, April 24, 2018, in possession of Eleanor Boba, Seattle, Washington; Meredith Hindley, "King Tut: A Classic Blockbuster Museum Exhibition That Began as a Diplomatic Gesture," Humanities, October 2015, copy available at National Endowment for the Humanities website accessed May 18, 2018 (https://www.neh.gov/humanities/2015/septemberoctober/feature/king-tut-classic-blockbuster-museum-exhibition-began-diplom); Megan, "Richard Nixon, King Tut, and the Exhibit That Became a Cultural Phenomenon," August 28, 2017, The Winston Hours website accessed May 18, 2018 (https://thewinstonhours.com/2017/08/28/kingtutexhibit/); Steve Martin, "King Tut," YouTube website accessed April 24, 2018 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FYbavuReVF4).


Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both HistoryLink.org and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for HistoryLink.org Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You