Friday, July 3, 2009

King Tut returns to the de Young Museum

America loves Tut
Originally published July 4, 2009 in the Santa Cruz Sentinel

“Now if I'd known,
They'd line up just to see him,
I'd've taken all my money,
And bought me a museum”

1978, lyrics from “King Tut,” Steve Martin

In 1978, at age 23, I stood anxiously waiting in a long line outside the Los Angeles County Museum for my chance to see relics from King Tut’s tomb. It certainly wasn’t common in the 1970s for artifacts to generate concert-ticket-length queues, let alone record-breaking museum attendance. But King Tut was a cultural phenomenon like no other. From 1976-79, nearly eight million Americans viewed “The Treasurers of Tutankhamun” during sold-out tours at each museum it appeared—including the de Young in San Francisco. Passions ignited for all things Egyptian—especially the boy king himself—unleashing a consumer phenomenon that included jewelry, clothing, dance moves, songs and even hairstyles.

The American frenzy for ancient Egypt wasn’t unique to the 70s, however. In 1922, English archaeologist Howard Carter launched the first wave of Tutmania when he originally discovered the long-forgotten tomb of King Tut. For the next decade, photographs of the objects that emerged had a wide ranging influence on America, from product advertisements (cigarettes and soap), to automobiles (the Scarab), to Hollywood movies (“The Mummy”), to art and architecture (art deco).

Last week I avoided the long lines I experienced 30 years ago by attending the press preview of “Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs” at the de Young Museum. I photographed the refreshment tables featuring pyramid-shaped vanilla yogurt on crackers, and cream cheese-stuffed dates looking very much like tiny coffins. I listened to various dignitaries, including the famed Egyptian scholar/explorer, Zahi Hawass, discuss the importance of the exhibit to San Francisco and Egypt, since proceeds from the exhibit will go not only to the museum, but also back to Egypt to further its efforts to excavate and preserve antiquities. (According to Hawass, Egypt never saw a dime from the 1970s U.S. tour.) And I lingered over each item in the exhibit itself.

Now that I’ve seen this amazing exhibit and done a bit of reading, I’d like to take a stab at answering that nagging questions, why is the West it so fascinated by the world of the pharaohs?

Unsolved Mysteries

It figures that a 19-year-old king who died in 1323 BC might leave behind a few unanswered questions such as: How did he die? Was he murdered? Who were his parents? Who were the fetuses buried with him? Modern technology may help to definitively uncover some of these mysteries through CT scans DNA testing.

You can take it with you

Ancient Egyptians believed that you can and should take it with you, so they buried royalty and those of high status in tombs packed with all the things they would need in the afterlife—both practical and beautiful. Essential for eternal survival and pleasure were items such as mummified meat, jars of wine, clothing, eye-paint, weapons, chariots, boats, etc. In young Tut’s case, his tomb also contained possessions he enjoyed during his lifetime such as a child’s chair and gameboards. Also included were funerary figures called shabtis, placed in the tomb to perform menial tasks for the tomb owner in the afterlife. And wrapped up with the mummy itself were amulets and charms—often made of gold or inlaid with semiprecious stones—to help protect the deceased on his journey to and existence in the afterlife.

Many pharaohs were buried in tombs in the Valley of the Kings—Tut’s being one of the smaller tombs probably because of his premature death. But what sets King Tut’s tomb apart from all the others is the fact that it was discovered intact with all its riches—virtually untouched by thieves. Tutankhamun died without an heir and the subsequent pharaohs, who, for whatever reason, wiped Tut’s name from the official record, inadvertently ensuring that his tomb would remain safe for centuries and his name would live forever.

The creepiness factor

“Oh Mister Tut they dig the tomb
All that gold leaf brightens up a room…
Your sarcophagus is glowing but your esophagus is showing
Who cares how rich you are love
When you look like Boris Karloff?”

1986, lyrics from “Dead Egyptian Blues,” Michael Smith

In America, mummies are the stuff of nightmares and horror films, usually brought back to life by some ancient spell. But to an ancient Egyptian, embalming and preserving the dead for the afterlife made perfect sense and was practiced as a very meticulous science. Each internal organ—the lungs, liver, stomach and intestines—had to be removed, dried and preserved in separate containers. The brain, which would hasten the process of decay if left in the body, was removed through the nose. The head was shaved and coated with a fatty material. The entire body was wrapped in layered strips of linen. (The penis was held perpendicular to the body as if erect.) Within the linen bandages that enveloped the mummy were about 150 objects, most of gold. What we might consider materialistic and creepy, the Egyptians considered essential to eternal well-being.

Pyramids and Papyrus

“All the old paintings on the tombs
They do the sand dance don’t you know”

1986, lyrics from “Walk Like an Egyptian,” The Bangles

Ancient Egyptian art is perhaps the most easily recognized art in the world. Smooth-sided pyramids of monstrous proportions; colorful paintings of buff men and women with faces in profile and liberally applied eye-liner; papyrus scrolls telling stories with columns of beautifully expressive picture-writing (hieroglyphics)—Egyptian art has a style and mystique that’s all its own and still resonates with us today, thousands of years later.

America’s passion for all things Egyptian will no doubt be ignited once again by “Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs." I’m embarrassed to admit that 30 years after I first made contact with King Tut’s accoutrements, my most vivid memory is not of his treasurers, but of Larry Hagman (a.k.a. J. R. Ewing), discussing an exhibit display with a friend. Hopefully, the greater purpose of the exhibit and this cooperative exchange between countries will not be lost on me this time. As Sameh Shoukry, Ambassador of the Arab Republic of Egypt to the U.S. so eloquently described the big picture at the press preview: sharing the heritage of humanity, recognizing the commonality of our values, and breaking the stereotypes for those who would like to see more tranquility in the world.

What: Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs

Where: de Young Museum, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco
When: June 27 to March 28
Tickets: $15 to $32.50, depending on age, membership and days of week

Father's Day Gift Ideas

June is all about men

Originally published June 6, 2009 in the Santa Cruz Sentinel

June means Father’s Day—a day when deserving fathers are honored by their appreciative children, and maybe even their grateful wives. My own dad (whose 82nd birthday is also in June) and my husband (also born in June) may be like yours: they’re difficult to buy for and don’t really need very much. So how do I express my gratefulness in a special way (four times!) in June? While I’m pondering that question, here are some ideas that might help you celebrate the men in your life.

  1. Start with a card. Sometimes the very best gift is a card with a personalized, straight-from-the-heart message. My kids have made many cards over the years with nothing more than paper, scissors and glue, and I know they are treasured because my husband has kept them all.

  1. Consider his hobbies. What does your dad collect, or read about, or like to do in his spare time? My dad collects coins, so one year I made him a piggy bank in the likeness of his favorite superhero, Wonder Woman, using a balloon base, paper mache and paint. Likewise, my husband collects major league baseball jerseys—the kind that are “licensed.” So this year I asked my husband to tell me about his collection, and what makes a really great jersey, so that I could make him an “unlicensed” replica jersey of his own design. (Instructions provided below)

  1. Decorate something he uses often. Add an “I love you” his tool box. Or paint images of big fish on a new tackle box. Create and decorate a remote control holder or a drink caddie for his favorite arm chair, featuring his favorite TV character or quote. Knit or sew a golf club cover or iPod pouch. Floor mats, book bags, laptop cases are just yearning to be embellished.

  1. Try Petroglyph or The Crafter’s Studio in downtown Santa Cruz. You can paint ceramic bowls, mugs, or a keepsake box at Petroglyph—and it’s really fun. Or learn to sew a tie, a shirt or pajama pants for dad at The Crafter’s Studio.

  1. Remind him of all the things that make him special. Make a decoupaged keepsake box decorated with references to all this talents, hobbies, jobs, and sidelines—a lifetime of interests and pursuits.

  1. Be an historian. Write down questions and interview your dad about various aspects of his life such as growing up, serving in the military, school years, his jobs, his family life, his friends. Tape record all his reflections and anecdotes and then transcribe them to give as bound gifts in the future.

  1. How about a new wallet? Go online for instructions on making a wallet from paper, duct tape, plastic bags, cassette tapes, milk cartons, FedEx envelopes, or playing cards.

  1. Create a retreat. Maybe Dad really needs his own quiet space for internet surfing, writing, drawing or napping. Create an outdoor “room” in the backyard with privacy screens surrounding a hammock. Decorate the screens with pictures of sand, palm trees and umbrella drinks. Or, if you’re handy with power tools, build him his own little studio retreat.

  1. Make a movie with the camcorder. Dust off that camcorder or use your digital camera to make a film. We called ours “A Day Without Dad” and my daughters hammed up all the nightmarish scenarios they could come up with (such as eating unhealthy snacks while watching non-stop cartoons), while I did the filming. Put your movie on YouTube so he can watch it all the time.

  1. Personalize a button, a keychain or a t-shirt. Iron on a family photo with ink-jet printable fabric. Add a photo to a keychain or pin-on button. There are kits in craft stores for personalizing just about anything. Or make a frame and put a favorite photo inside. Google “What to make for Father’s Day” for a lots more craft ideas.
  2. Baseball Jersey: To make a personalized baseball jersey, surf the internet for a blank jersey in the right color and size. (I found my gray warp knit jersey at They may also sell you a blank shirt at a digitized embroidery shop—although, once there, you may be tempted to just let them do the whole job.) Buy a small piece of polyester knit or spandex for the letters and numbers. Trace around a letter/number template (purchased or computer printed from an enlarged font) with disappearing-ink fabric pen onto the knit fabric.

To keep the letters from stretching, iron-on medium-weight fusible interfacing to the back of the knit before cutting out each letter. Trace around each cut-out letter with disappearing ink for correct placement on the shirt. To keep the shirt fabric from stretching, add light-weight fusible interfacing to the inside of the shirt in the approximate location of the letters; then baste each letter in place on the outside of the shirt. Sew around the edges of each letter with a tight, wide zigzag stitch. Add matching trim from the notions department or use polyester shoe laces (I found great laces at the Converse Outlet in Gilroy.)