This past Thursday I had the opportunity to attend the Gala Opening of the King Tut exhibit at the Pacific Science Center. The show here in Seattle is the last North American stop before the items return to Egypt, with the intention that they will not not go on tour ever again.
There were a lot of great pieces, and much of the exhibit includes items and sculptures from Egyptian history, with the final layout resembling and presenting items from King Tutankhamen’s tomb. It was a little disappointing that the famed golden mask which is used in the promotional advertising was nowhere to be seen. But not really surprising.
What struck me with this exhibit, and indeed with a previous exhibit I have seen in this space (the fossilized remains of “Lucy”) was the way that these burial items, and on occasion, actual remains, are used for entertainment value. Certainly there is scientific data and purpose to investigating historical objects, but is there a point where a respectful line needs to be drawn between the search for knowledge and the search for amusement?
I specifically have avoided any of the “Body” exhibits that have come to town because I am uncomfortable with the concept of the show and using human remains for titillation and profit. Yet, I can’t help but feel a similar type of sadness when I consider exhibits like “King Tut” or “Lucy.” We are so quick to honor and respect our own dead, but the passage of time somehow makes it more acceptable to disrespect those who came before us, especially when they can easily be distanced as coming from another land, race, or even species.
I wonder, would the reception be the same if there was a touring show of a great European monarch’s body and burial items? How many people would feel comfortable viewing Queen Elizabeth I’s corpse in a glass case? Why are the bodies on display or held in museum vaults generally non-white? I put a great deal of stock into intention. Granted, good intentions may have negative consequences and vice versa, but I see no honor in trying to profit off of the remains of others. These exhibits are cloaked in science, but at the heart of it, they are about entertainment. They may be less bloody than gladiator combat in a Roman arena, but are they any less macabre?