The bayou pharaoh: Remembering King Tut’s New Orleans reign
On Sept. 15, 1977, the New Orleans Museum of Art in City Park admitted the first visitors to the “Treasures of Tutankhamun” exhibit displaying an array of Egyptian antiquities, including jewelry, figurines and a massive burial mask. By the time the exhibit closed four months later, 870,594 people — many of whom waited in line for hours — had glimpsed the treasures.
With more than half of the exhibit’s visitors — 53 percent — coming from outside Louisiana, the Tut exhibit was nothing less than a watershed moment for New Orleans. Letting the art world know it would, and could, support such world-class exhibitions, the four-month Tut extravaganza put the city on the map for other blockbuster exhibits over the years, including a show of Claude Monet’s late paintings, art and artifacts from the time of Alexander the Great and displays of German expressionism, and the whimsical illustrations of Dr. Seuss.
- The Egyptian theme went beyond the exhibits. An obelisk was erected in the neutral ground of Lelong Drive in front of the museum, and the New Orleans artist Emery Clark turned that thoroughfare into “NOMA Nile,” painting the street shades of ultramarine blue, lapis lazuli, turquoise, emerald green, magenta and gold. Two hundred volunteers executed her concept using 400 gallons of donated paint.
On the exhibit’s last day, the boy pharaoh was seen off in an appropriately New Orleans way: with a jazz funeral. The procession, led by coroner Frank Minyard on trumpet and attended by Mayor Moon Landrieu, got plenty of attention, as media from around the world were in town to cover the Super Bowl later that day in the Superdome.
- The exhibit had an economic impact of slightly more than $89 million, according to a study by the University of New Orleans’ College of Business Administration.
- Portable toilets near the museum were dubbed Tutlets.
- The Fairmont Hotel held the exclusive rights to feed the museum crowds, which it did in an enormous yellow and white striped tent that was bigger than the hotel’s ballroom and which was erected just outside the museum. Offerings included a Sphinxburger, Valley of King’s Hot Dogs, Osiris Fried Chicken – and red beans and rice.
- New Orleans gained prestige, and visitors, because it was one of only seven U.S. cities to land the exhibit. The others were Washington, D.C., Chicago, Los Angeles, Seattle, New York and San Francisco.
- Demand to see the treasures was so great that the museum let companies reserve nights at the exhibit so employees and their families could view the artifacts — and pay the museum for the privilege.
- Crowds were so big, the City Park golf driving range was converted into a parking lot.
Normally, it takes something like a Saints winning season to unify the city for months at a time. But in late 1977, and for months afterward, it became the unlikely job of Egypt’s boy king. Whether as a school group, a church group or as a free agent, it seemed as if everyone in town had attended the exhibit, with many going multiple times. To this day, gift-shop tchotchkes — from tiny glass pyramids to hieroglyph-adorned letter openers – can be found on coffee tables and office desks around the city, and fond memories can be found in the hearts of locals. “If Tut had stayed long enough, he might have been the first posthumous king of Carnival,” a Times-Picayune story read upon his departure. “He certainly would receive the people’s vote.”