Richard Nixon, King Tut, and the Exhibit That Became a Cultural Phenomenon

1974. Patty Hearst was kidnapped, The Brady Bunch was canceled, and Gerald Ford stepped into the role of President after Richard Nixon resigned in the wake of the Watergate scandal.

Not quite two months before his resignation, though, he took a trip to Egypt. This was the first time a sitting president had traveled to the country since Franklin D. Roosevelt’s visit over 30 years earlier.

Nixon with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. June 12, 1974.

Nixon with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. June 12, 1974.

“Today marks the day when, by your meeting with the President of the United States…we cement the foundations of a new relationship…”

The US and Egypt had severed diplomatic relations seven years earlier and Nixon wanted to remedy the situation. There is a lot more going on with this visit (having to do with The Cold War and the Soviet Union) but I’m going to focus on the cultural aspect of the visit and agreement. The Cold War aspect will come back into play in a bit.

In the agreement that the men signed, the culture clause stated that the US would help Cairo rebuild their opera house while Egypt would send some of Tutankhamun’s treasures to tour the US. It would be a cultural, and economical, win-win in the midst of Nixon’s crumbling presidency. The US State Department began negotiations with Egypt and it was decided that Tut’s treasures should go on tour beginning in 1976 to celebrate America’s bicentennial.

Hoving vs. Brown

In Washington DC, the National Gallery had already begun planning their own Tut exhibit, tentatively slated to open in 1977 or 1978. They had even received approval from President Sadat and the Egyptian Cultural Ministry. Now that was off the table. Still, the National Gallery’s director, J. Carter Brown, offered the Gallery as the exhibit’s organizing institution. Sounds like a no-brainer. But in the museum (and government) world, things are rarely so straightforward.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art stepped in. The president of the Met’s board of trustees, C. Douglas Dillon, had a discussion with Henry Kissinger that left him with the impression that the museum may stand to lose access to federal grants if they didn’t take an active role in the planning of this exhibit. Thomas Hoving, the Met’s director, dove into the negotiations head first.

This wasn’t just about wanting the best for their respective institutions or even the prestige that comes with organizing and hosting an exhibit of this magnitude. This was personal. The two museums often competed for benefactors, resources, and exhibits. Brown seemed to be better at negotiations and regularly beat out Hoving when it came to securing these exhibits. In 1974, Brown beat out Hoving to have a major art exhibit titled “The Archaeological Treasures of the People’s Republic of China” at the National Gallery. Hoving had lost big time and wasn’t going to let that happen again.

The State Department asked Brown to bow out and let the Met have this one. Brown agreed, provided the exhibit opened at the National Gallery. All parties agreed, Hoving stewing over losing to Brown yet again. But Hoving eventually took solace in the fact that the exhibit would end its US tour in New York. He later wrote, “being last was actually better than being first—visitors would flood to the final opportunity to see the show.” As you might imagine, the budget for an exhibit of this magnitude is staggering. The Met would need funds for transport, insurance, extra staff, exhibit construction, the list went on and on. They were granted $250,000 from the National Endowment for the Humanities, matched by The Robert Wood Johnson Jr. Charitable Trust and Exxon. They received insurance aid from the new Arts and Artifacts Indemnity Act, ratified in December 1975.

Thanks, National Endowment for the Humanities!

Between November 1976 and April 1979, the exhibit would hit six US cities: Washington DC, Chicago, New Orleans, Los Angeles, Seattle, and New York. Those cities had no idea what was about to unfold.

Oh, this exhibit only visited three cities in the Soviet Union. Nixon wanted to make sure the US tour hit more than that because apparently during the Cold War, there was no such thing as being too petty.

king tut exhibit 1970s

Crowds lined up for Treasures of Tutankhamun at the National Gallery, February 1977. Photo via Humanities Magazine.

King Tut Arrives in the States

On opening day, November 16, 1976, the line wrapped around the building…the three-block-long building. Since the tickets were first come-first served, people lined up at dawn. Even when they reached the museum’s entrance, they still had a four-hour wait to get into the exhibit. When the exhibit closed four months later, over 835,000 people had visited. That was more than the population of DC at the time.

When it went to the Field Museum in Chicago, the staff was a little panicked. They weren’t equipped to handle crowds like DC saw. They changed their ticketing system, installed a new switchboard to handle the influx of calls, and brought on more staff and volunteers. They issued over 8,500 tickets on opening day and by the end of the four months, over 1.3 million people had visited Tut’s treasures.

king tut exhibit 1970s

A woman visiting the exhibit at the Field Museum in Chicago, 1977. Photo via The Field Museum.

The same thing was repeated around the country: museums had to prepare themselves for millions to pass through their doors in a short period of time. At the New Orleans Museum of Art, the director made the decision to stop offering memberships as they had climbed from around 3,000 to over 12,000 in just a few months and were unable to keep up. Over 870,000 people saw the exhibit and spent over $75 million (over $280 million in 2016) in the city. When the exhibit closed in New Orleans, they sent Tut off with what else? A jazz funeral.

king tut exhibit 1970s

Tut’s New Orleans jazz funeral, January 15, 1978. Photo via

When it came to the Los Angeles Museum of Art (LACMA), tickets were $2, which would be $7.51 in 2017. An absolute bargain. But like any show in high demand, scalpers got in on the action. They sold tickets for $35, the equivalent of $131.40 in 2017. No matter. Over 1.25 million visitors saw the exhibit at LACMA, an attendance record that still stands for the museum. The Seattle Art Museum saw similar numbers.

king tut exhibit 1970s

1978 photo of the line to enter Treasures of Tutankhamun at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art

King Tut in New York City

And finally, Tut reached New York and the Met. It opened on December 15, 1978, and tickets sold out in six days. By the end of its run in New York, over 600,000 tourists had descended into NYC and spent over $110 million (upwards of $370 million today) in the city. Over 1.27 million people visited in total.

Everywhere it went, it seemed to be a blessing and a curse. It provided a short boom to the local economy and museum attendance and memberships skyrocketed. It reminds me of the Olympics: lots of preparation for a once-in-a-lifetime blockbuster event that strains resources and doesn’t lead to any long-term economic benefits. I’m not going to disparage a museum exhibit that got millions of people around the country excited about history, though!

Commercializing King Tut

Some weren’t happy with how commercial the exhibit was. You could buy all manner of souvenirs, official and unofficial, at each stop. The Met sold life-size reproductions of the goddess Selket for $1,500 while street vendors sold women’s shirts that said things like, “Hands off my tuts!”

And of course, there’s Steve Martin’s song, “King Tut.” Martin wrote it to criticize the commercialization…and the song ended up selling over a million copies and hitting #17 on the Billboard charts.

steve martin king tut

“He gave his life for tourism.”

This was perhaps the first blockbuster museum exhibit and left an indelible mark on the 1970s. It’s part of the cultural zeitgeist of the decade and is a strangely bright light for Nixon’s presidency as the agreement that would lead to the exhibit came as government officials were waiting for those infamous tapes to be handed over.

King Tut: A Classic Blockbuster Museum Exhibition That Began as a Diplomatic Gesture by Meredith Hindley
The King of New York by David Kamp
LACMA’s 50 Years on Miracle Mile by Noelene Clark
Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs from The Field Museum
King Tut from Saturday Night Live
King Tut Tours are Big Sellout in New Orleans from the Chicago Tribune, August 23, 1977
King Tut in New Orleans: Museum Hosted 1977 Exhibition for Thousands by Chelsea Brasted
Photo of Nixon and Sadat

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