KING TUT-A-COMIN'

MUSEUMS

KING TUT-A-COMIN'

OLD BLACK EYES IS BACK, AND HIS NEW TOUR IS GENERATING TICKET SALES--AND CONTROVERSY.

King Tut has been kicking up dust ever since British archeologist Howard Carter discovered his treasure-filled, 3,000-year-old tomb in 1922. That notorious unearthing--it supposedly unleashed a curse that doomed several people around the dig--inspired Hollywood horror movies and spurred on the art deco craze. The boy king's first U.S. tour, which began in 1976, was epic pop: it launched the era of museum blockbuster shows, with unprecedented crowds craning to see the tomb's gold and jeweled artifacts, while the cash registers ca-chinged in the nearby souvenir stalls. When you're talking Tut, the line between scholarship and showmanship has always been pretty thin.

So brace yourselves for a new wave of mummy mania, with a rumble of controversy. Next week "Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs" opens at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the first stop of a two-year, four-city U.S. juggernaut that has critics--pardon the expression--tut-tutting. The issue isn't over the content of the exhibition--50 stunning artifacts of Tut's, as well as 70 items from his relatives' tombs in Egypt's Valley of the Kings. The problem is what's perceived as an unholy alliance between the not-for-profit museums hosting the show and the very-much-for-profit Anschutz Entertainment Group, owner of L.A.'s Staples Center and the country's second largest rock promoter, which brokered the exhibit. With the Egyptian government requiring a $5 million fee from each venue (to aid in restoration projects), plus a sizable cut of ticket and souvenir sales, Anschutz is assuming a financial risk. So the museums have to bring in the bucks--which means the top ticket in L.A. will cost $30. L.A. Times art critic Christopher Knight blasted the deal as "repulsive," while a New York Times editorial praised the Metropolitan Museum, which organized the first King Tut show, for passing on this one: "This exhibition essentially outsources the museum's real job--curating content--to a commercial company."

Well, not quite. A committee from Egypt's Department of Antiquities decided which objects could be sent abroad--unfortunately, it didn't include the '70s tour's show-stopping golden mummy mask. David Silverman, an Egyptologist at the University of Pennsylvania who's the exhibition's American curator, defends Tut 2 as more extensive than the first, and giving "more context to the artifacts." It tells the story of the religious and political upheavals surrounding Tut, who died at 19--from an injury, not murder, according to new research. (It also includes a CT-scan-based re-creation of what Tut looked like.) Silverman and the museums' curators controlled the exhibit texts.

But the bottom line is... the bottom line. LACMA justifies its participation with Anschutz because it otherwise couldn't meet the financial demands. "I see it as an obligation to make this available to the public," says director Andrea Rich. And New York's Metropolitan did spend months in discussions with the show's organizers; the museum balked because its policy doesn't allow charging for special exhibitions.

Despite the ethics issues, in L.A., advance ticket sales for Tut are huge. For the public, the chance to see such artifacts is rare, and the lure extends far beyond typical museum-goers. "You can't compete with King Tut," says Zawi Hawass, Egypt's antiquities czar who pushed his government to allow these treasures to go abroad once more. "King Tut is mystery and magic." And after 3,000 years, still a star.