Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Man Behind the King Tut Exhibit

The King Tut exhibit arrived at the De Young Museum in Golden Gate Park last summer, which means that for months I have been living a ten-minute walk away from one of the world's most priceless collections of Egyptian antiquities. But I still haven't been to see it. First, I didn't feel like dealing with the crowds; then, some of my friends said it wasn't very good. And now, after reading the New Yorker article on Zahi Hawass, head of Egypt's Council of Antiquities (subscribers only, sorry) I am not sure I want to support this exhibit with $32.50 of my money!

The article portrays Hawass as a megalomaniac, a relentless self-promoter who recklessly seeks blockbuster archaeological finds--digging the Valley of the Kings down to the bedrock in the hopes of unearthing a tomb. Ian Parker, the article's author, does try to give Hawass a fair shake--acknowledging that his egotism is rooted in a patriotic desire to promote Egyptian history and restore Egyptology to the Egyptians. But the rest of the article is written in such a snarky tone that the impression of Hawass as reckless blowhard is what predominates. I'm not used to seeing New Yorker profiles that so gleefully make fun of their subject--well, the critics will tear movies and plays apart, but the writers of feature articles don't tend to be so harsh on living people. Which implies that Hawass must have really pissed Parker off.

Choice quotes:
  • "[Hawass] often asks rhetorical questions along the lines of 'God gave me this talent for public speaking--what can I do?'" (N.B. this is the third sentence of the article. The snark starts early.)
  • "Hawass is so often found in the middle of an argument that one can usually assume the fuss is strategic. [...] He has no doubt that his fame is a vital national asset."
  • "His dominant conversational tone was rebuttal laced with invective and self-regard [...] Hawass speaks English fast, with a strong accent, and in a tone that, after a while, you come to realize doesn't denote outright fury."
  • "Hawass's tendency toward self-flattery obscures his past; when, reluctantly, he talks of his upbringing, his words have the texture of a Soviet-era account of Stalin's boyhood."
  • "He mentioned an excavation in 1990, when he opened the tomb of a dwarf named Perniankhu and found a basalt statue that he regards as a masterwork of the period. [...] When Hawass took the statue in his hands, he told me, 'it was one of the most beautiful moments in my life, as if I were holding my first son.' This moment occurred during a press conference."
  • "He told me that when he showed Obama around the Pyramids he grew to have a better understanding of him than all but the President's closest confidants. 'We became friends from the first minute,' he said. 'I told him George Lucas came here to find out how my hat became more famous than Harrison Ford's.'"
  • And, most damning, considering the exhibition that is in town and the money they're charging for it: "Hawass accepted a proposal from A.E.G., the sports-arena owner and events organizer, to take Tutankhamun back on the road, with an explicit ambition of making money. [...] Any museum that took the show would be given a share of the ticket proceeds, but it would have to stomach the loss of almost all curatorial control. In San Francisco, for example, the de Young museum was able to veto items in the exhibition's accompanying gift store, and it ruled out a tissue box whose papers exit through the nose in a Pharaoh's mask. Beyond that, the museum was the provider of floor space."

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