After 35 years, Tutankhamun is returning to London. Yet the influence of the original 1972 exhibition has never gone away - it was the first blockbuster exhibition, spawning queues around the block and tea-towel memorabilia.
By Jonathan Fildes
"Been there, bought the T-shirt" was the sort of gleeful boast you could expect from a child who had just visited a theme park. Today, it could be someone returning from an art exhibition.
Whether it's Pompeii AD79 at the Royal Academy, Edward Hopper at the Tate Modern or Picasso at the National Gallery, many art and artefact exhibitions now come with blockbuster status, drawing hundreds of thousands of visitors to gawp at their unique collections, amassed for one time only.
But none of them hold a flame to the daddy of them all; the original epic show: The Treasures of Tutankhamen.
From its opening in spring 1972 at the British Museum, this treasure trove tribute to the 3,000 year old boy king attracted 1.7 million visitors.
TREASURES OF TUTANKHAMUN
Travelling exhibition ran from 1972 - 1979
First shown at London's British Museum
Admission was 50p
There were long queues (above); some waited for eight hours
Even the Royal Academy of Arts' Monet in the Twentieth Century show in 1999, which stayed open through the night on its final weekend, only chalked up 700,000 visitors.
But such shows would have been unthinkable before King Tut's brief visit to London in 1972.
The Treasures of Tutankhamen was the first "blockbuster" exhibition.
"It raised the game," says Sir Christopher Frayling, rector of London's Royal College of Art.
It defined the term and set the bar so high that every exhibition since has been measured against it.
"It was a significant moment - it's something to cite to all up and coming curators," adds Dr Beverley Butler an expert in museum studies at University College London. "It has its place in museology and in museum history."
The show brought together the very best of the artefacts uncovered by archaeologist Howard Carter who unearthed the Tutankhamun tomb in 1922, and brought them to Britain for the first time.
"It was a dizzying array of material and all of the greatest hits were there," Sir Christopher recalls.
Central to it was the famous gold death mask, an artefact that will be conspicuously absent from the new Tutankhamun exhibition at the O2, formerly known as the Dome, later in the year.
Visited by the Queen, in March 1972
"I just stood there and literally trembled - it was an incredible sensation," said one of the many that queued for up to eight hours for a face-to-face with the boy king in 1972.
The relics, including a towering statue that had guarded the entrance to his tomb, were displayed in hushed, darkened rooms, designed to echo the tomb in which they had been found.
"All of these gold and jewelled treasures jumped out at you," says Professor Rosalie David, an Egyptologist at the University of Manchester. "It was just beautifully displayed."
The design, which showed off the glittering artefacts in the order they had been discovered became a yardstick for museums and art galleries, which until then had mostly made do with dusty glass cases and hand-written labels.
The revelations continued... in the museum shop, where Sir Christopher remembers the "surprise" of "the magazines, booklets, facsimiles and souvenirs that went with it".
Visiting the exhibition in Cairo - the mask will not be on show in London
A Time magazine article from 1972 reported: "The English, normally phlegmatic about art, greeted the event with ecstasies of Tutankhamenophilia. Tut appeared on posters, postcards, carrier bags and 56 million commemorative stamps."
Such was the public's taste for taking home a bit of King Tut, the museum sold out of replica jewellery on the first day, and ever since museum managers have ensured that departing visitors should always be directed through the shop before reaching the exit.
No modern blockbuster is complete without official mugs, keyrings, prints, tea-towels and, of course, T-shirts. According to Sir Christopher, the souvenir business was a by-product of the deal that allowed the treasures to go on tour.
"The Egyptian government struck a hard bargain, which was that 'you can have it but we want to share the profits'."
But deals stretched far beyond just souvenirs - with the exhibition doubling up as a sort of international diplomacy roadshow. After all, the world tour had been negotiated by the then secretary of state for the US Henry Kissinger, as part of a deal in the Middle East, says Sir Christopher.
Immortality assured... King Tut started the craze for newspaper wall-charts
The deal has spawned several copycat agreements to ensure the success of other big exhibitions.
But perhaps the exhibition's most enduring legacy is with the 1.7 million people who visited the British Museum in 1972 and the millions more who saw the artefacts elsewhere around the globe.
"I think it was a real turning point. Until then Egyptology was a specialist field, but this really opened it up to the whole world," says Prof David.
The blockbuster, the cultural equivalent of dropping the TV schedules to show the Champion's League final, guaranteed huge audiences from all walks of life.
"Everybody knew about it and talked about it. It revived the kind of interest when the tomb was actually discovered."
Add your comments on this story, using the form below.
The only day I ever bunked off school was in 1972 to go to see the Tutankhamun exhibition with my best schoolmate. We arrived in the morning and finally got in late afternoon. It was the most fabulous, never forgotten experience. Since then I have travelled far and seen so much, but no exhibition anywhere has matched those wonderful crafted gold objects suspended in hot darkness as if by magic.
Miriam Rose, Pillowell
My wife and I were teenagers when the exhibition came to England in the 1970s, and we did not visit it then.
We are travelling to Egypt in October, and were hoping to see King Tut in his native country, but it seems we have been thwarted. I suppose we'll have to try again in England.
Mark Zammit, Motcombe, England
My Mum queued up with her Mum to see this originally but unfortunately never got to see it. She has told me about it recently and is absolutely adamant that she will get tickets this time. I am desperate to know where this is going to be held (I've heard it's the o2 centre which is the old Millennium Dome) and when/where tickets will be available to buy. Thanks and regards. Jessica
Jessica Summerfield, Croydon, Surrey
I saw the exhibition in Philadelpia last month. Regardless of the fact that the death mask is missing, the other exhibits more than make up for it. It is a totally stunning exhibition.
mark , tynemouth
I was 10 years old when i went on the school trip to see that Tut exhibition in 1972, i remember the queue in front of the museum, and i remember that Golden Mask in the darkened room like it was yesterday.
I remember that Blue Peter covered the exhibition. They explained that two passenger jets had been converted to freighters to bring the artefacts over to the UK. Val singleton (or was it Lesley Judd?) asked the Pilot if this was the most valuable cargo he had ever transported. He replied that he normally carried peopleżż.
Mrs Trellis, Bracknell Berks
I remember that there was a special postage stamp issued and my primary school offered a first day cover of it as a prize in a competition centred on the exhibition. I wrote a piece on the discovery of the tomb and won the first day cover. Can anybody tell me if it's worth putting on Ebay?
Simon Clark, Crowthorne /Berkshire
I was there (aged 10) and there is no way that the cars looked as old as your picture!
trefor williams, Ayleabury
I really was there and I did the queuing with my older brother. I was 18 and had never seen anything like it, the images of the exhibit have stayed with me forever. It's a shame that the death mask isn't going to here here this time.
tim bates, london
Monet in the twentieth century at the National Gallery? I was amongst those 700,000 in 1999 and I could have sworn I was in the Royal Academy.
Tom Adams, London
Having visited the same exhibition when it was here in Los Angeles, potential visitors should be warned that it does not live up to its advertising. The famous mask which appears to be featured in the advertising material is not one of the artefacts. When I visited the Egyptian Museum in Cairo last year, the mask and virtually all other items were present. I suggest saving a little and flying to Cairo (so much closer to London than from California) since it would be far better value!
David Cunard, Los Angeles, USA
My Mum went to see the exhibition when she was a child. She told me about how she got up in the early hours of the morning with her Mum and Aunt, and they took the train to London, and were queueing by 6am to see it. I must tell her that she was part of museum history! Pity that the death mask will not be at the exhibition, I think that's what makes it so special.
Catriona Candler, Sheffield, UK
I was a 14yo schoolboy in York in 1972 and hundreds of us travelled down to London on a school trip by train to see the exhibition. Unfortunately the school had cocked-up and the package they bought didn't include admission!
After sitting around on the British Museum steps for a couple of hours we were ushered in and led to a lecture theatre to see a film about the famous King Tut. We traipsed all the way back to York without seeing the exhibition at all. Ah, schooldays. The best days of your life.
Michael Johnson, Liverpool
I remember that wonderful photograph in the papers showing the Queen looking at the gold mask of Tutankhamun through the glass case-it captured the moment perfectly.
I've just got back from a holiday to Egypt where we saw these exhibits (and a lot more besides) as well as going to the Valley of The Kings. Anyone who is unsure about going, I'd strongly suggest it's worth it. Even without the mask, it's amazing to see all the artefacts. Especially when you realise how small a tomb they were held in.
Wendy Harrison-Fox, Oslo, Norway
I so remember 1972. We visited London the day after the exhibition opened and thought we just might get in. We queued for over 7 hours ~ and it was so worth it, ~ to actually come face to face with that royal gold face. Don't miss it!
Terry McConway, Gateshead
I saw this exhibition in 1972, my father worked at the British Museum at the time. I was only 4 or 5, and I can't say I really remember the exhibits, but I certainly remember the crowds.
Julian Nicholls, Lymington, UK
I hope this time round that the obvious black African heritage of Tutankhamun will spark proper debate on the origins of the Ancient Egyptians and the history surrounding the Eurocentric and Egyptian Arab conspiracy to obscure the past. History has yet to be resolved towards the truth.
keme amana, nairobi, kenya
I rememeber the last time Tutankhamuns treasures came to the UK. I was young and my parents wouldn't or didn't have the time to take me. Instead they bought me a white leather shoulder bag emblazoned with a scarab beetle - a special offer from the Daily Mail! The event spawned a life long fastination with ancient Egypt for me and I hope that this next exhibition will have the same effect for children nowerdays.
V Bias, Bath,
Why go all the way to London when you don't even see the Mask..... Pop on a plane to Cairo, when there it's an amazing city. Visit the Cairo museum and then the pyramids and sphynx at Giza. Then of your on a budget, travel by train along the Nile to Luxor for less than ten quid. Stay in one of the supe hotels in Luxor and have a boat ride to the Valley of the kings. Nice people, extremely cheap and well worth the visit.
Ian Ratcliffe, Middle East
I was a young man newly married that year and waited over five hours to see this exhibition with my then wife.It was a hot day and street sellers were expoliting the crowds with drinks and snacks.My most memorable moment was seeing the death mask which,if surprisingly smaller than expected,was magnificent and stunned me into admiration of a by-gone empire.The exhilleration still is poignant and worth the entrance fee of 50p each,I will always remember the event despite the hours of queuing.
Tim McMahon, pennar/wales
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