Almost exactly 100 years ago, British archeologist Howard Carter discovered King Tutankhamun’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings. Known widely as “King Tut,” and arguably the most well-known pharaoh of the past century, the young king has turned into something of a pop culture icon. Over the years, people speculated on everything King Tut — his relationships, his cause of death, his tomb’s hidden contents. The National Geographic Museum is here to set the record straight in their new exhibit “Beyond King Tut: The Immersive Experience.”
“There were more famous pharaohs, like Ramsses the Great and Seti the First and Cleopatra,” Kathryn Keane, vice president of public experiences for the National Geographic Society says. “King Tut was, in life, sort of a minor pharaoh. He only ruled for 9 years and was relatively unknown. But because his tomb was the only intact tomb that had been discovered in the Valley of the Kings, he’s the most famous pharaoh. In many ways, he’s had quite the afterlife.”
The museum plans to showcase that afterlife as part of King Tut’s story. The exhibit is an immersive experience — visitors will be surrounded by images, video and sound, covering the whole floor of the museum. After an introduction video, visitors will walk into King Tut’s tomb, the walls covered in hieroglyphics depicting ancient Egyptian’s preparation for the afterlife. On the other side of the museum will be a projection similar to those at ARTECHOUSE, where visitors are surrounded by image and sound. In this version, National Geographic adds a storytelling component, voices narrating King Tut’s afterlife experience based on ancient texts.
The National Geographic Museum aims to add a new perspective in this storytelling. During the time of Carter’s discovery, Western and European archeologists had the corner on these types of excavations. Over the past few decades, National Geographic has worked to make sure people who live near the discoveries get to help tell the stories. In this case, two Egyptian explorers will be highlighted in the exhibit — Sahar Saleem, radiologist from Cairo University, and Nora Shawki, Egyptian archaeologist.
“In the 19th and 20th centuries, the Egyptians were extremely cognizant of the Westerner’s presence, and they were very deliberate about protecting their heritage during that process,” Keane says. “I’m not suggesting there wasn’t looting while this was happening, but Egyptians were early leaders in understanding the impacts of looting, and they put guardrails and rules in place for some of these Western excavations.”
Since Egypt is one of the American school system’s main focuses in world history classes, museum visitors might have at least a basic knowledge of this expansive culture. But that focus can run the risk of turning people into artifacts, and National Geographic Museum wants to turn that around. They draw from ancient spiritual texts and scholarship to create a rendition of royal Egyptians’ life and views of the afterlife.
“Our goal is to always be talking about how the past can help us better prepare for the future,” Keane says.
It’s difficult to talk about the future without considering the threat of climate change. The King Tut exhibit should help visitors understand the need for conserving stories, and also conserving these ancient cultures threatened by our ever-changing world. While Egypt is definitely getting hotter, it’s also threatened by rising sea levels affecting the Nile’s delta, agriculture issues and general water issues.
“Our ability to highlight ancient cultural sites is not to generate tourism, but to elevate the need for conservation in those places,” Keane says. “We have seen, in our lifetime, ancient areas of the world — places that are in the Bible — that have been threatened by climate change and human conflict. It shows a dramatic need for protection and conservation. By elevating these stories, we’re also elevating the audience’s consciousness.”
The goal of any great museum is to have visitors leave with the ability to think about the world differently than they did when they first entered. The King Tut exhibit offers plenty to think about — stories of our ancient world, our present world and our researched renditions of the world after.
“For us, it’s really about experiencing [King Tut’s] story in a different way,” Keane says. “And being able to travel to Egypt without actually having to get on a plane. A great exhibit is like a time machine — through the power of great visual storytelling, we can transport you back in time and allow you to understand history a little bit better.”
“King Tut: The Immersive Experience” continues through February 2023. To reserve tickets, visit nationalgeographic.org. Follow @natgeomuseum to learn more about the exhibit and the National Geographic Museum.
National Geographic Museum: 1145 17th St. NW, DC
King Tut Fun Facts
For a little preview, enjoy these King Tut fun facts from Fred Hiebert, archeologist-in-residence for the National Geographic Society.
Inside King Tut’s tomb, there were 5,398 objects, including the most famous funerary mask and 22 pounds of solid gold. Aside from the mummy and sarcophagus, there were:
130 walking sticks
35 boat models
40 boxes of food
11 life-size sacred boat oars
5 composite bows
145 pairs of underwear
25 head coverings
4 socks (what was Tut’s mom thinking?)
42 pairs of sandals and one single
29 chairs (including 4 thrones)
Enjoy some behind-the-scenes photos by Andrew J. Williams III.