Paris’s Tutankhamun exhibition is a record-breaking hit – but scarabs, pharaohs and man-eating monsters have been thrilling us for centuries
Paris’s current mania for Tutankhamun should come as no surprise. The Grande Halle de la Villette exhibition of 150 objects found in the tomb of the ancient Egyptian pharaoh is now France’s most-visited exhibition ever, having attracted over 1.3 million visitors. Many of the objects on show – “wonderful things”, in Howard Carter’s words, including mini-coffins, a gilded bed and a calcite vase – have left Egypt for the first time for the Treasures of the Pharaoh exhibition, which will move to London’s Saatchi Gallery in November.
The exhibition’s popularity echoes the wave of “Tut-mania” that swept the west almost 100 years ago when Carter first discovered the boy-king’s tomb. Suddenly everyone seemed interested in Egyptology, evident in the fashions, arts, culture and advertising of the time, and most enduringly in art-deco architecture such as the Chrysler building in New York – especially its distinctive elevator doors – and the Carreras Cigarette Factory in London, with its line of sleek black cats guarding the entrance. US president Herbert Hoover named his dog King Tut, and there were calls for the extension of the London Underground’s Northern Line that linked Tooting and Camden Town to be named Tutancamden.
There had been a similar wave of interest in the 19th century following Napoleon’s military campaign in Egypt and Syria, which included a group of scientists and other experts – one of whom discovered the Rosetta Stone during the trip.
I can well understand this fascination; an Egyptian exhibition in London in 2010 transformed what became my novel The Weighing of the Heart. The book’s narrator, Nick, is a young British man who steals a work of art from the study of his rich landladies on New York’s Upper East Side. The stolen piece is an ancient Egyptian scene, and as the stress of the theft starts to work on Nick and his girlfriend Lydia, its imagery starts to come to life around them, although it’s unclear whether this is really happening or is all in Nick’s head.