Manhattan is a mecca for world-class museums, and there’s certainly no shortage of genuine art and artifacts from Ancient Egypt. The Metropolitan Museum of Art holds tens of thousands of pieces of historical significance, and practically all of them are on display – including the magnificent Temple of Dendur and several real-life mummies! The Brooklyn Museum also has two mummies on display.
So it came as a bit of a surprise at how much we enjoyed an exhibit about King Tut composed entirely of reproductions. This is something you should know about The Discovery of King Tut, currently on display at Premier Exhibitions on 5th Avenue (at 37th Street) in New York. It consists of about 1,000 replica objects but is without a single genuine artifact. But that almost doesn’t make a difference.
What came as a shock was just how enraptured my kids (4 and 6) were with the exhibit. I credit much of that to the audio guide that comes with your admission, but neither of my kids wanted to leave until they had listened to all 38 tour stops and seen absolutely everything the exhibit had to offer. As a result, my daughter is currently fascinated by all things Ancient Egypt and has a stack of library books on her bedroom floor. I call that a win.
I should also mention that this exhibit is about the discovery of King Tut’s tomb (hence the name). It’s not about his life specifically or Ancient Egypt in general. It’s about Howard Carter’s discovery and what was found inside this nearly intact tomb. Only those items found inside the tomb are on display.
As soon as you enter the exhibit, you’re given an audio guide (also available in Spanish, French, Italian, and German) that will take you through the exhibit and explain the history and significance of almost everything. There’s also a kids version of the audio guide (available in the same languages), which I guess is pretty great since neither of my kids took the wand away from their ears for a solid couple of hours. I listened in to a bit of it, and it covers the same content but is “toned down” for younger visitors and more conversational.
There are some introductory exhibits in the lobby: a quick overview video, a replica Rosetta Stone, and a model showing the tomb and the extent of its underground tunnels and chambers.
You then watch a more detailed introductory video in a small theater about Howard Carter, his career, and how King Tut’s tomb was originally discovered. Following the movie, the audio tour is automated, and everyone moves together to view the meticulously re-created tomb chambers that show what it looked like at the moment of discovery.
This first, very dark, room presents three of those chambers: the antechamber, the treasury, and the coffin chamber. The audio tour focuses on these three rooms when Carter first opened them up, and the lights are timed to it (i.e., subtle spotlights illuminate specific items being discussed).
Once the audio tour is finished with these three chambers, you’re free to move through the exhibit at your own pace.
Because nothing in this exhibit is “real” – there are no actual unearthed artifacts that are thousands of years old – everything on display literally gleams as if it were brand new. The series of coffins that housed King Tut’s mummified body like a Russian nesting doll glow and reveal beautifully intricate details. King Tut’s gorgeous gold mask looks like it just came from the craftsman’s studio. Other shrines, statues, and jewelry reveal the level of opulence that Egyptian pharaohs enjoyed – and can often only be inferred from genuine artifacts on display at other museums.
Ultimately, I suppose that’s the power of this exhibit. It has the ability to transport you back in time and around the world in a way that’s not often possible in a traditional museum setting. I have no delusions about the objects on display. They’re stunning, masterful replicas…but they’re still replicas.
The museum snob in me scoffs at the idea of paying to see “fakes.” But the father in me is amazed at how engaged my kids were with the exhibit, which – I have to admit – does a stellar job at presenting the history of Howard Carter, King Tut, the discovery of the tomb, and a slice of Ancient Egyptian civilization.
Since I’m not sure when we’ll make it to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo (which houses King Tut’s original mask, among thousands of other artifacts) or the Valley of the Kings, this is remarkably close to “the real thing.” And, really, I firmly believe that the guiding principle of any museum should be education. The Discovery of King Tut is a stunning exhibit that got my kids excited about history. Again, I call that a win. We were impressed.
The exhibit is in midtown Manhattan until May 1, 2016, and is open every day. Tickets are a bit steep at $27 for adults and $17 for kids 5-16, but if you can visit on a Monday, all tickets are only $15.