Review: ‘Beyond King Tut’ at the National Geographic Museum

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The artifacts in Pharaoh Tutankhamun’s tomb — or, as a new exhibit at the National Geographic Museum spells it, Tutankhamun — were meant to commemorate the Egyptian ruler’s life and lead him to the next. Since they were first excavated almost exactly 100 years ago, beautiful artifacts such as Tut’s gold burial mask, as he is better known today, have sparked widespread interest and admiration. But “Beyond King Tut: The Immersive Experience” emphasizes non-material aspects of the boy king’s significance. The centerpiece is an animation of the dead king’s journey to the afterlife, as suggested by the text known as the Egyptian Book of the Dead.

The organizers of this almost entirely virtual reality exhibition had little choice but to take this approach, as the relics from Tut’s tomb are no longer available for display outside of Egypt. The show features some impressively designed spaces reminiscent of tombs, caves and the burial chamber of the pharaoh, complete with an oversized reproduction of his sarcophagus. However, most of the exhibits are made of nothing more substantial than sound and light.

“Beyond King Tut” was produced through the collaboration of Paquin Entertainment Group, which conceived the “Beyond Van Gogh” and “Beyond Monet” exhibitions, and Immersive Experiences, a company whose creative producer, Mark Lach, oversaw the design of “King Tut : The Golden King and the Great Pharaohs,” an artifact show that toured between 2004 and 2012.

You have seen ‘Van Gogh: the immersive experience’. Experience a real Van Gogh now.

In the first room, we are introduced to Tut, who died aged 18 or 19, around 1323 BC, and the discovery of his rubble-buried tomb in November 1922 by Howard Carter, a British artist and self-taught archaeologist. After this introductory video ends, a door automatically slides open to access a room reminiscent of the exterior of the Royal Tomb of Tut, the only largely intact tomb ever found in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings.

Carter and his lender, the Earl of Carnarvon, hosted the international press in 1923, but did not allow most visitors to enter the crypt. (One of the excluded was National Geographic correspondent Maynard Owen Williams.) The apparently weathered walls in this gallery have simulated holes that reveal flickering video of such Tut-related relics as a statue of Anubis, the dog-headed god of death. These glimpses evoke Carter’s first glimpse into the grave.

The museum’s 3D theater contains the simulated sarcophagus and an illustrated video lecture that spans three walls. One of the themes is the way animals represented many aspects of Pharaonic Egypt and its ruler. Thus the vulture stood for Upper Egypt and the cobra for Lower Egypt; both were included in the regalia of Tut, who presided over the united regions. Also symbolic were 12 baboons, one for each hour of the late king’s supposed passage through the underworld.

Beyond is a gallery that recounts Tut’s life, as told by the artifacts in his burial site, such as a knife and scabbard, a ceremonial staff with a bowed head, and pottery embellished with hieroglyphics. There is also a family tree, partly based on ongoing DNA research.

As you walk down a long hallway, you’ll pass four clusters of video screens flashing images and text, leading to a large photo cutout in the shape of Tut’s funeral mask. His golden face is bathed in light that constantly moves and seems to change in appearance.

The main event is a fanciful 20-minute video that depicts Tut’s first night of the afterlife, in which he supposedly fought a giant serpent and was judged by the gods: the requirement for a pharaoh’s eternal survival is a soul that is lighter is then a spring. The story unfolds in animated images projected onto all four walls, as well as the floor, which at one point blazes with video fire beneath your feet. In this Disney-esque tale, King Tut—reportedly weak and sickly in real life—was heroic and noble.

No one will ever know how true that characterization is, but for a century, the wonders unearthed in Tut’s tomb have sparked the imagination worldwide. “Beyond King Tut” is more informed than most treatments of the boy pharaoh’s legacy, but it doesn’t withstand the fantasy blossoming.

King Tut: Little Pharaoh, Great Phenomenon

The boy king, whose life story unfolds in this virtual reality story, left an outrageous legacy.

  • King Tut, who was installed at the age of 8 or 9 and died just ten years later, was a lesser pharaoh. But over the past century he has been one of the best known. That’s because his tomb has yielded the most artifacts of all ancient Egyptian rulers.
  • Tut, who left no heirs, was the last of his family to rule during Egypt’s 18th dynasty. He was the son of Akhenaten, who converted Egypt from polytheism to the worship of one divine being: Aten, a sun god. During Tut’s reign, the traditional gods were restored, including Amun, in whose honor Tut changed the ending of his name, which may mean “living image of Amun.”
  • The cause of Tut’s death is unknown, but most scholars attribute it to natural causes. Medical experts have suggested that the young pharaoh suffered from malaria or sickle cell anemia.
  • Some of the actual objects from Tut’s tomb were exhibited in the National Gallery of Art and other American museums from 1961 onwards. The larger “Treasures of Tutankhamun” exhibition began its tour at the National Gallery in 1976 and traveled to six other US cities. Such pieces are unlikely to ever leave the Cairo region, where they will reside in the Grand Egyptian Museum, which opens later this year.
  • Tut-mania has inspired a lot of pop culture, including “The Mummy,” a movie franchise that started with the 1932 Boris Karloff vehicle, and “King Tut,” Steve Martin’s 1978 novelty hit. Both are referenced in the last room of “Beyond King Tut.”

Beyond King Tut: The Immersive Experience

National Geographic Museum, 1145 17th St NW. nationalgeographic.org/society/visit-our-museum.

Prices: $20; students, seniors, military personnel and teachers $16; ages 5-12 $12; under 5 free.

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