Strut that Tut: Treasures x Treaties


Treasures of Tutankhamun was one of the first international blockbuster exhibitions, but its success started with an act of cultural diplomacy that initiated the immense cooperation necessary to implement the international phenomenon. The exhibition began as a clause in an agreement between the United States and Egypt dedicated to cultural exchange; Egypt agreed to send Treasures of Tutankhamun on an American tour while the U.S. aided in the reconstruction of Cairo’s opera house. On this episode of cultureXchange, we speak to Professor of Egyptology Dr. Aidan Dodson and Dr. Fatma Ismail, Director of U.S. Outreach and Programs at the American Research Center in Egypt on why this exhibition garnered global interest and how ‘The Boy King’ took hold of the public imagination.


Episode Transcript

Hello and welcome to cultureXchanges, a podcast at the intersection of the humanities and cultural diplomacy. I’m your host Terry Harvey, Vice President of the Meridian Center for Cultural Diplomacy. This podcast series explores the impact of the arts and culture on diplomatic relations across the world through discussions with cultural diplomacy experts. 

Today on cultureXchanges we are taking a look back at the cultural impact of the 1970s “Treasures of Tutankhamun” exhibition. What began as a clause in a diplomatic agreement between the United States and Egypt dedicated to cultural exchange, turned into a blockbuster exhibition that took hold of the public imagination. Dr. Aidan Dodson studied at Durham, Liverpool and Cambridge Universities, being awarded his PhD in 1995. His research looks particularly at the history of ancient Egypt with particular interests in burial and funerary practices, the architecture of tombs, the history of Egyptology, and the history of Egypt between 1500 BC and 600 BC. He has taught at the University of Bristol since 1996, and has been honorary full Professor of Egyptology in the Department of Anthropology & Archaeology since August 2018. He was Simpson Professor of Egyptology at the American University in Cairo for the spring semester of 2013, and served as Chair of Trustees of the Egypt Exploration Society from 2011 to 2016. Elected a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London, the oldest archaeological body in the UK, in 2003, Professor Dodson is the author of some 26 books and 400 articles and reviews. His latest book, Tutankhamun, King of Egypt: his life and afterlife is being published by the American University in Cairo Press in December 2022.

TK Harvey – Thank you for joining us, Dr. Aidan Dodson. We look forward to this fascinating discussion about the history of the King Tut exhibition as it traveled the world, traveled to America, and really what the implications were for audiences who were able to absorb this amazing content. I thought first to dive into really the historical context. Obviously, the discoveries of Carter were monumental on early 20th century and wonder if you could speak a little bit on the historical context of the treasures of Tutankhamun exhibition and how these were developed and really what the diplomatic goals of this endeavor were. I guess in your case for the people of the United Kingdom.

Dr. Aidan Dodson – I think the important point was that discovering Tutankhamun in 1922 really was the first time that anybody had seen what a completely untouched Egyptian royal tomb was like. Prior to that, we knew about some of the stuff which was in these tombs because there was a broken remains after teams have been robbed, but the discovery in ‘22 suddenly made one realize precisely what some of these bits were once of and revealed objects which I don’t think anybody could have imagined even existing. For example, a solid gold coffin isn’t something that anybody had guessed might have existed. And this material went on display in Cairo back in the 1920s to 30s, but then was really only accessible to people who were traveling to Egypt. And the big change comes in the 1960s when the idea of having this kind of material travel outside Egypt was first mooted. There was a small exhibit came to the states in the 1960s only for handful of objects, but then as we move on towards 1970s, the real blockbuster show starts getting developed and including things like solid gold, mask from the mummy and a much wider range of material and that Sort of thing goes to France, it goes to the Soviet Union, it goes to the United Kingdom and then ends up having a long tour of the USA.

TK Harvey – Yeah, pretty remarkable to think about how many players were involved in exporting these treasures. I wonder if you could speak a little bit on the stakeholders from the UK Foreign Ministry, the Egyptian Government, obviously the host institutions, private donors, and such. I wonder if you could speak, if you could, just to the collaboration amongst these varieties of institutions and individuals who contributed to the ultimate success of its display.

Dr. Aidan Dodson – It was an interesting combination of politics, culture, and sort of things in between because at one level, and it would depend to a degree which institutions you’re talking about and in which countries as well, but part of it was a question about sort of between collaboration between academic organizations (i.e. the Egyptian antiquities authorities, the individual museums, which there’s a scholarly aspect to it) and there is also the diplomatic and more political thing about what these loans say about the relationship between Egypt and the various receiving countries. I think there are subtle differences between which particular institutions are involved and how far does the state gets involved. In the UK, for example, the Royal Air Force ends up transporting some of the material across from Egypt. In other cases, it’s all done on a much more commercial kind of basis.

And then also when you’ve got things going on tour around countries, you have some very interesting dynamics between the heads of various institutions. in France and the UK, the material simply went to one particular venue and there was no real sort of question about who’s in charge as far as it was concerned. The head of Egyptian antics, the British Museum, the head of Egyptian antiquities at the at the Louvre, and so on. But then when the American show, it’s got multiple stops. There is a net from the outset, there’s a bit of a needle between Metropolitan Museum of Art and the National Gallery in Washington over who actually is in charge. I think they end up with some kind of compromise whereby the Washington gets the first showing, but the MET organizes it and is the last stop on the grounds that the last stop is probably the best place to be because all this suddenly people say “hang on, we’ve not seen it yet, this is the only place we can go” and you end up with queues around multiple New York City blocks to get in. And then the production of souvenirs that I think they’re still selling some of the leftover souvenirs from the exhibition in the 70’s in the MET today.

TK Harvey – Yeah, it’s really remarkable as I’m learning this subject just how they were able to really use this as a commercial endeavor, right? It obviously stimulated tremendous economic growth and all of these host cities around the world. I wonder, leaving that aside, what sort of cultural impacts it made on the people of UK, the people of America, did it make them want to travel more to Egypt and it open their eyes to a whole culture that they otherwise had no intention of learning about?

Dr. Aidan Dodson – I think that was it was suddenly the once again, Egypt was a big thing, and the whole concept of Egyptomania, popular interest, it’s been something which has waxed and waned ever since ancient Egypt became a thing for the Western world, probably in the 1820s, I suppose. The first blockbuster exhibition was in 1821 in London, and there been various ones, but then things waned. They had various points where Egypt was the big thing, and then it all sort of rather sort of fizzled away. And so really, probably in Tutankhamun tomb was found in 1922, Up until then, Egypt had a degree of popularity. It was a good tourist destination, but it wasn’t one of those sort of wow things. And then the Tutankhamun tomb was found, and between there and the Second World War, there’s a whole period of real public recognition beginning point is that people, when you can find that, when you look at what people, what scholars are writing for the general public, and it takes an awful lot for granted, it sort of takes for granted that certain individuals, not just about Tutankhamun, but his mother, Nefertiti, and other people are all recognizable names.

Then it all goes rather so flat subsequently and during the 1950s and 60s, museums are even disposing of Egyptian objects for a song and then I think it’s these extra Tutankhamun exhibitions which really sort of get in popular interest and recognition of ancient Egypt going once again. So, and I think that’s never really gone away since I think those blockbuster exhibitions around Europe and North America really have meant cemented ancient Egypt in people’s minds. The fact it’s on school curricula, all those sorts of things I think ultimately come back to those exhibitions. And suddenly people who are around at the time, you know, remember the queues going around city blocks to get into the British Museum and the American venues. So, I think from the point of view of the embedding of ancient Egypt in popular understanding, well I shouldn’t say understanding because somebody understanding is a bit flaky, but it comes up in a bit of consciousness anyway.

TK Harvey – Yeah, certainly making its way into popular culture, I was just reading that Saturday Night Live sketch comedy actually addressed the tours in America. I wonder if we could switch gears momentarily and just really discuss how this story fits into the contemporary discussions happening in the humanity space about the ethics of excavating human remains and displaying artifacts from burial sites. I mean, did it move the needle for that? Did it open up other challenges like what? What did it do in that context?

Dr. Aidan Dodson – I’m not really sure it did, we had a negative effect in that it reinforced the old trope of archaeology is searching for treasure. And I’m not sure we’ve ever quite got beyond that. I think there are various people who are, perhaps ought to know better, still sort of trumpeting that side of things today. The idea we are searching for very specific things, specific sort of iconic lost artifacts and things rather than actually what we are doing is simply looking for knowledge and trying to undo that. On the other hand, though, because governments are normally rather stingy when it comes to giving out money for archaeological research, you do need to tap private sources, and of course the way you tap private sources is by sort of flogging the idea of you’re looking for wonderful things and so on. This is actually quite difficult sometimes as an archaeologist to walk the correct line between populist stuff which you need to get people to get their checkbooks out or in modern terms to put bank transfers across and also trying to sort of hang on what we actually are trying to do is we’re not looking for things specifically, we are seeing what turns up and what that can say for our as to reconstruct entered history.

As far as the ethics of display is concerned, the question of displaying human remains, I think it’s like a separate one from displaying what is found in archaeology, other things which has very rarely being done in any of the in the context of any kind of Egyptian travelling displays is any issue is human remains or if they have been on tour they’ve normally been skillfully wrapped and in their coffins and so on, so that’s much an issue. As far as the the sort of the implicit thing about the morality of even excavating. I think the trouble with that whether say the people who say we should be digging anything up, it’s the trouble is that the genius out of the bottle archaeologists been going on for a very long time and it’s quite clear as for example during the Maribo the Egyptian revolution where guarding of sites and so on was withdrawn and archaeologist stopped working. Simply people genuine shared real treasure hunters start digging things up, so the I think the that that particular genie the idea that we shouldn’t be excavating these things went back 200 two 150 years ago when people started taking interest in monuments in the past so that we simply have to do is make sure that when we do investigate these things, human remains are dealt with in an appropriate manner, with due respect, taking into account as far as one can do, the beliefs of the people who were actually digging out.

But everything should be properly recorded so that he’s in virtual terms. And any kind of deposit continues to exist, not with objects or spread to the wind with the winds, things not properly published and those sorts of things. Although sadly it still is the case that things don’t get published. People tend to leave often. They enjoy that, they enjoy the excavation and the short term stuff. And they tend to leave things to be written up when they retire. And of course, when they do retire, they may go under a bus shortly afterwards. And there’s a lot of a lot of these excavations which have never actually been properly published, including Tutankhamun that Howard Carter fell ill not long after finishing the work and. And although he left some superb records, which are perfectly publishable, he never actually got down to it. And he’s just one of the examples of many examples like that.

TK Harvey – Yeah, the Genie truly is out of the bottle and obviously with anything you’re going to have good players and bad players, right? You just hope that the good ones outweighed the bad and underscore, you know, this this monumental tour underscored just how one can monetize such a scholarship, right? And so that really opened the doors and obviously American Hollywood romanticizing this through film and such, so, it’s been an interesting landscape to learn more about. I wonder if we could end with a final question just in terms of, you know, what we learned from these massive exhibitions traveling through Europe and America. These were just really big early examples of soft power diplomacy, whether in museums or elsewhere. What have we learned from those blockbuster exhibitions that traveled and sort of how can we improve on that and maybe you know get rid of some of the bad players? That is a loaded question sir, apologies, but I wonder if you could speak to that.

Dr. Aidan Dodson – I think the key thing is that when you’re talking about international exhibitions like this, politics with a capital P are a major thing. And certainly, the Tutankhamun tours and the very fact and the locations were part of sort of cut late Cold War events. the very fact that The time when the material is being shown in Soviet Union and then the USA coincided very closely with when Egypt moved from being not in the Soviet bloc per se, but sort of sympathetic to that side to being more on the western side when Anwar Sadat through with Russian advisors out so That coincides very closely with all of this. So that certainly is part of it And of course, without political buy in insurance, all those sorts of permissions and so on for things to leave countries are really, really quite important. So, with the ability to actually secure a slot on the tour or a specific loan was important to sort of marker of how Egypto-French, Egypto-Soviet, Egypto-British and certain Egypt to American relationships are going. That continues today you know with things which have been on loan from Russia or Ukraine in light of the current events in that part of the world.

So, it’s always part of it and then there’s also from the point of view, there’s that that level of politics. There’s also just the very fact that people who are visiting these shows, one would like to think that encourages them to be more okay with other countries, although sadly that probably generally Isn’t the case because the perception of Egypt in the past, the Gold, Tutankhamun, and all those sort of things is very different from a lot of people’s perceptions of the Middle East today, which are often completely misguided. So, I would like to think that these things provide people a desire to learn more about Egypt as a whole, but sadly I think they tend to connect, carry on very much living in the past. But on the other hand, though there are people who have met more than once the Egypt who were in energized to come to the country for the first time by visiting one of the exhibitions in the 70s and since been become complete Egypt, miles travelling on a regular basis.

So, for some it has had that kind of positive effect, but for some it is just simply, you know, the latest glitzy thing. And I have a horrible suspicion that if you ask quite a few people in those lines to go in, where is Egypt? Can you point to it on the map? I fear most would have not a clue, which really worries me when I talk to students is their lack of geography and that these are people who are studying anthropology at my university. And then you’re a man and woman in the on the street of New York where you know Egypt, “well, It’s somewhere, somewhere, somewhere across the Atlantic perhaps…It’s probably something in the Pacific?” No, that’s the only problem—I think it brings out one aspect of society, and obviously it’s true of tracing China and these other ones, but there is that there is a slight worry that they don’t necessarily go as far as they like, and it would be nice if one could say that increased appreciation of the real modern Egypt, but probably not.

TK Harvey – Yeah, I mean, some would obviously argue that. And obviously folks on our side of the Atlantic struggle with geography, you know, perhaps this exhibition sort of laid the foundation for curiosity. At least that’s what I think.

Dr. Aidan Dodson – I think that’s it, at least, it’s sort of open people’s eye there is stuff there and the probably tiny minority who actually took it further. But the very fact that tiny margin probably would never have engaged with the Middle East past or present if they hadn’t gone to that. So, there is that there is that side of things definitely.

TK Harvey – Well, thank you so much Dr. Dodson for helping us understand this important element of our history, from the geopolitical perspective, from our archaeological perspective, and I want to thank you for your time today.

Dr. Aidan Dodson – Thank you very much.

Dr. Fatma Ismail received her Ph.D. from the Near Eastern Department of Johns Hopkins University. She finished her undergraduate studies and a preliminary master’s degree in Egyptology at Helwan University, Cairo, Egypt. Dr. Ismail has worked on several exhibitions, including the Eternal Egypt Exhibition: Treasures from the British Museum, both at the Walter’s Art Museum; and Quest For Immortality: Treasures Of Ancient Egypt at the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.  She also served as the main curator for the exhibition, For Now and Forever: Funerary Artifacts from Ancient Egypt, in the Kohl Gallery of Washington College. Since 2010, Ismail has been teaching at several colleges such as MICA, Montgomery College, Washington College, and McDaniel College.

TK Harvey – Thank you for joining us, Doctor.

Dr. Fatima Ismail – Thank you for having me.

TK Harvey – So, I want to dive right into the amazingly historic exhibition that traveled to the United States Treasures of Tutankhamun in the late 70s. I wonder if you could share a little bit with the audience. What about this blockbuster exhibition captivated an American audience? And what were some of the cultural impacts of its popularity in the U.S. and in Egypt?

Dr. Fatima Ismail – Of course! Tutankhamun’s fame is mainly the result of his well-known preserved tomb and the global expressions of his artifacts. The tomb is only one of two royal tombs that were found intact from Ancient Egypt. The first exhibition you referenced on Tutankhamun that took place in the 70s, contained many of the major items from his tomb. Such as the famous mask, the Golden Coffin, mini statues and jewelry, all breathtaking intricate works of art on their own artistic merit, let alone their unparalleled historical significance. And I really believe every item of the exhibition has a story and had touched the, the minds and the hearts of the American and Egyptian audiences alike, even though as a king he was not of great importance. Every aspect of his private life, his lineage, family, his health, mummy, circumstances about his premature death, rumors about the curse, even his religion.

It’s tantalizing and became the subject of many studies that keeps adding incredible educational value to the study of history or geology, arts, diplomacy, and culture. In Asia, in particular, it led to an increased interest in archaeology funding of excavations and research. It attracted attention to the proper field and archaeology, and I think most importantly, it connected the Egyptians themselves more with their history. Fortunately, the timing of the discovery of the tomb coincided with the rising of nationalism and the Egyptian government, or the Prime Minister at the time Saad Zaghlul, insisted that all contents of the tomb stay in Egypt inside the Cairo Museum. For the first time, Egyptians kept their rightful treasures together and cherished the story of the boy king forever.

TK Harvey – Yeah, I mean, in a lot of ways, the exhibition tour gave Americans a real glimpse into the history and culture of Egypt. Sparking perhaps economic growth through tourism and interest and curiosity. And I mean it really was a fanfare of a truly a blockbuster exhibition.

Dr. Fatima Ismail – Absolutely. It’s a defining moment for many people. I meet a lot of people who became very enthusiastic about disruption culture because either thesis is at the expression when they were little kids, or their parents visited the exhibition and told them stories of what they have seen in this amazing expression in the 70s.

TK Harvey – Yeah, and for curators alike. And we curate exhibitions like you and we’re always looking for ways to improve on our work and learn from past examples. I wonder what contemporary cultural exchanges, whether in museums or elsewhere, learn from this amazing historical triumph tour through America.

Dr. Fatima Ismail – I think the most important lesson we can learn is its emphasis on the grandeur of the human experience and on what humans, no matter from where or what time they live, can also achieve. And what we can learn from each other, the overwhelming sense of adventure you feel when you learn about the story of the discovery of the tomb resonates, I think, with people’s inherent sense of exploration and motivates them to seek more knowledge and pushes them out of their comfort zone and a little bit. It can also deepen understanding across cultures and create ties between the U.S. and other communities. It helps everyone, especially students, develop a sense of appreciation for all the things that make us different and diverse. Such international arts exchange certainly increases respect and admiration for other people, especially for their ability to create beautiful things that happened for thousands of years.

TK Harvey – And it also in a lot of ways, created the foundation for folks to really consider Egyptology and the history of Egypt and Tutankhamun, as part of their own global history, right? And as curators were often trying to tell stories and make people feel included and involved. And I’m sure it did a tremendous deed and, you know, really giving Americans a great sense of our human history, right?

Dr. Fatima Ismail – Absolutely, it is a human heritage. You know, yeah—absolutely.

TK Harvey – Some of the great work you’re doing at the American Research Center, I would be foolish to try to explain all the great work you’re doing. So, I want to give you an opportunity to give our audience a little bit more about what you’re up to and how they can get more involved.

Dr. Fatima Ismail – Sure, ARCE, American Research Center in Egypt, is a private, premier nonprofit, American organization, focused on the preservation and research of Egyptian cultural heritage. We have completed 95 conservation projects in the past 25 years and awarded $7 million in fellowship grant money loans. We are affiliated with over 30 museums and universities around the world, who rely on our resources to secure appropriate permissions for their field work. And yet, most importantly, we are a world leader in partnership with Egypt for about 74 years, focusing on uplifting and highlighting the cultural priorities of the governments and working in partnership with the different Egyptian ministries. We host the most important conference of Egyptologists each year in North America, and a thematic conference in Egypt, also, once a year. We are a membership organization with over 2,000 members globally. You can learn about us more on our website

Recently, we have increased our outreach programs to build on our mission of fostering a broader knowledge about Egypt among the general public with monthly virtual lectures, podcast programs, chapter in-person lectures, all over the U.S. and all this year we’re dedicated to Tutankhamun. ARCE is also working closely with Google Arts and Culture as well as National Geographic just to spread the word about Egyptian culture heritage. And I think the most exciting thing happening soon is the Tutankhamun Centennial Conference, “Transcending Eternity,” that we are organizing in partnership with the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities and Tourism. It’s a three day conference held in Luxor taking place between the 4th to the 6th of November and it’s actually happening on the same day, November 4th, when the tomb was discovered 100 years ago. The conference will include lectures by world renowned experts on Tutankhamun.

TK Harvey – Thank you so much, and on the eve of such a big conference, appreciate you taking the time to help our audience gain a better appreciation and understanding of this historical exhibition tour and the discovery. And you know, doubtless so much scholarship has emerged since then has countless really, and it’s unsung heroes like you and your organization that really contributed to that from an academic standpoint, so, thank you.

Dr. Fatima Ismail – You’re very welcome. It’s been a pleasure talking to you.

TK Harvey – Thank you.

Dr. Fatima Ismail – Bye.

Thank you for joining us today on cultureXchanges, a podcast that examines the impact of cultural diplomacy, in its many forms, on global relations. We’d like to thank the National Endowment for the Humanities for funding this podcast, our guest on this episode for taking the time to share their expertise, our podcast editor Ed Bishop, and our listeners for taking the time to engage in the world of cultural diplomacy. 

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