March 17, 2010

Art: A glimpse inside Tut’s Tomb

Kentucky Center for African American Heritage opens first exhibit

I have good news and bad news.

The good news is the Kentucky Center for African American Heritage (KCAAH) is finally open after years of financial struggle. It promises to be a welcome addition to the attractions in our city, housed in a former trolley barn in the Russell neighborhood. KCAAH eventually plans to house both permanent and temporary exhibitions centered on the history of African-Americans in Kentucky. For now, they’re opening with a Tutankhamun show, sure to attract viewers from all over Louisville.

The bad news is most of the artifacts are reproductions.

The young Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun (affectionately known as Tut) continues to fascinate as much as he did when archaeologist Howard Carter located his tomb in 1922. His is the only tomb found with intact afterlife items, bursting with enough gold to blind onlookers. While many of the original objects are now housed in Cairo, the tomb’s bounty has occasionally traveled to museums in the United States.

After decades of speculation about what caused 19-year-old Tut’s death in 1324 B.C., recent DNA testing shows he died of a degenerative bone condition compounded by malaria. An earlier leg fracture probably hastened his death. The tests also confirmed he is the son of the previous pharaoh Akhenaten.

The exhibition title comes from the archaeologist who uncovered Tut. As he was shining a light inside the dark tomb, he was asked if he could see anything. “Yes,” he said. “Wonderful things.”

The show was created by the International Museum Institute of New York, a firm located in Syracuse that specializes in replica exhibitions. Besides Tut, their other shows are based on ancient Greek art, the earliest known human skeleton “Lucy,” dinosaurs, Africa and NASA photographs.

The 126 objects in the Tut exhibit include thrones, masks and gods, all in their golden glory. The display is divided into five chambers: introduction to ancient Egypt, archaeological discovery, private pharaoh, public pharaoh and royal burial. Not all of the items are related to Tut, with some fleshing out the history of ancient Egyptians.

All of the objects in this show are replicas, with the exception of three original necklaces. The exhibition labels list the current location of the original artwork, which I found disorientating. Although some of the objects were better copied than others (an excellent shrine surrounded by guardian statues, a not-so-wonderful Nefertiti), I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was in the land of soy hot dogs, counterfeit money and cubic zirconium.

I was impressed with the text information. Ancient Egypt relates more to science fiction than anything in our modern life. The text helps viewers better understand the artifacts.

Visually, the show is beautiful, as is KCAAH’s architecture. The buildings have been artfully redesigned, turning the five structures in the complex into a showcase.

My recommendation: Visit the Tut show to get an overview of ancient Egyptian life and to support KCAAH, then go see the real thing. Egyptian objects, including mummies (always a crowd pleaser), can be found at Speed Art Museum, Southern Baptist Seminary and the Louisville Science Center.

Tutankhamun: “Wonderful Things” From the Pharaoh’s Tomb
Through Aug. 29
Kentucky Center for African American Heritage
1701 Muhammad Ali Blvd.
583-4100
www.kcaah.org