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.

EGYPT. Cairo. Left: Egyptian president Anwar El SADAT. June 12th,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.

20120326f173f3deef34adad232f

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

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.

kingtutmask

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.

-fd7e5753cdf975d1

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

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.

CLH1.CA.Of.0513.tut.O.1

Line outside LACMA for Treasures of Tutankhamun. Photo via the Los Angeles Times.

Tut’s Last Stop

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.

stevemartinkingtut

“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.


Sources
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

Dalí and Disney: Actually, A Pretty Likely Friendship

Last year I got wind of an exhibit coming to The Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, FL: “Disney and Dalí: Architects of the Imagination.” I knew I couldn’t miss it and I knew I’d be in Florida during the exhibit’s time at The Dalí. In April 2016, I made the journey to St. Pete, a short detour off my planned route, to see this exhibit that I had heard wonderful things about.

And I was not disappointed. It was crowded (understandably so) but so, so cool. I had never visited The Dalí before and it’s just a gorgeous museum. “Disney and Dalí” is no longer at The Dalí but it’s still a must-see if you’re in St. Pete. This isn’t an exhibit or museum review, though. This is about the friendship between these two men. (For the sake of clarity, I’m going to refer to Walt Disney as Walt and the company Disney as, well, Disney.)

IMG_1379.jpg

Interior of The Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, 2016. Original photo.

Nearly everything you’ll read about Walt and Dalí states that it was an unlikely friendship. I have to disagree. Of course, their styles were very different but these men were the same age (Dalí was only three years younger than Walt), both artists, and both pioneers in their fields. Walt kept abreast of trends in art and filmmaking so it is no surprise that he eventually met and formed a friendship with one of the 20th century’s most acclaimed artists. They both pushed the boundaries of their art, broke new ground, and had the kind of drive that it seems to me only another person with that kind of drive can understand. Of their friendship, Walt’s nephew, the late Roy E. Disney, once said, “It always seemed to me they were both really relentless self-promoters and they must have seen that in one another.”

And have you seen Fantasia? It’s not like Walt was unaware that animation could be surreal.

Anyway. I just don’t think we should be so surprised by this relationship.

By 1936, Disney had already revolutionized animation, syncing sound with animation for the first time and using three-strip Technicolor technology, which Walt had gained exclusive access to. Mickey Mouse was already a beloved figure, the company had produced its 36th Silly Symphonies short, and three years earlier, it produced the short Three Little Pigs.

By 1936, Dalí had become an internationally acclaimed artist. His first solo exhibition was in Barcelona in 1925 and an exhibition in Pittsburgh in 1928 brought him international notoriety. He completed his most famous work The Persistence of Memory (also known as “the melting clocks”) in 1931. He had visited Paris in the 1920s and returned in 1936 with his wife, Gala, to escape the Spanish Civil War.

All of this to give you a frame of reference as to where their careers were in 1936. It was that year that the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) held an exhibition titled Fantastic Art, Dada, and SurrealismNaturally, Dalí’s work was featured. But Walt also had pieces in the exhibit: two animation cels from Three Little Pigs. This was the first time their careers crossed paths and the men began to take note of each other. The next year, Dalí would travel to the US and write a letter to Andrê Bretton, the founder of Surrealism, stating, “I have come to Hollywood and am in contact with three great American Surrealists—the Marx Brothers, Cecil B. DeMille, and Walt Disney.” Dalí was eager to make an animated film, seeing animators as Surrealists.

2393_editora_78_9_1_10201020

(One) mission accomplished! Dalí sketching Harpo Marx, 1937. Photo via The Gala-Salvador Dalí Foundation.

In 1944, Walt read Dalí’s autobiography, The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí. He was so entranced, he sent his copy to Dalí to ask for an autograph and suggest a collaboration between Walt Disney Studios and Dalí. Walt made this suggestion for two reasons: recently, critics had been accusing Disney of sacrificing artistry for marketability and Walt wanted to continue working with the type of innovation used by Fantasia, which had been released in 1940.

Beginning with this initial letter from Walt, the two began exchanging letters and eventually met at a Warner Brothers Studio party in 1945. World War II had delayed their collaboration (Disney was making propaganda films) but with the war’s end, they could focus on collaborating.

In 1946, Dalí began spending half of his time in Burbank, home of Walt Disney Studios. (The other half was spent in Pebble Beach, CA.) They fleshed out their ideas, wrote outlines, and created drawings. Walt chose the name “Destino” (Spanish for destiny) for the project, after the title of the ballad they chose for the short film’s score.

destino_1_1410788327_10201020

Dalí working on Destino at Walt Disney Studios, 1946. Photo via the Gala-Salvador Dalí Foundation.

If it wasn’t apparent before, it quickly became clear that their storytelling approaches were very different. Walt’s stories relied on characters while Dalí saw characters as secondary elements, to be wrapped in symbolism. Walt described Destino as, “a simple love story—boy meets girl.” Dalí described it as, “a magical exposition of life in the labyrinth of time.” Of course he did.

While these differences might have spelled the end of any collaboration for others, the project soldiered on for nearly a year. Work on Destino came to a rather abrupt end when Walt determined that he couldn’t afford to keep Dalí on Disney’s payroll. (It’s unknown exactly how much Dalí was paid but Walt did comment that Dalí was “expensive.”) Walt also felt that Disney should move away from anthology features, which Destino had turned into. Overall, the project had sort of gotten away from them and was turning into something that neither man envisioned. There are also rumors that the men’s strong egos played a part in the project’s death but given that the men remained friends until Walt’s death, I doubt egotism was a factor. In the 1950s, they vacationed at each other’s homes in California and Spain and Walt had Dalí’s paintings on the walls of his Palm Springs home. There just wasn’t animosity there.

dalianddisney

Dalí and Walt Disney in Spain, 1957. Photo via The Walt Disney Family Museum.

Over 50 years later, Disney released Fantasia 2000. It was the release of this film that inspired Roy Disney to resurrect Destino. Walt Disney Studios hired a team of French animators to bring Dalí’s notes and drawings to life. In 2003, Destino was finally released, nearly 60 years after its conception. 

It has elements of Disney’s animation style but Dalí’s influence is unmistakable. It was nominated for an Oscar in 2003. Of course, Walt never saw the film, passing away in 1966. Dalí lived until 1989. Unfortunately, not even Roy Disney lived to see the film. He passed away in 2001.

Destino stands as a reminder that art forms can merge and create something beautiful and unexpected. Dalí wanted to create an animated film and there was no better partner than Walt Disney.

Sources
Disney and Dali: Architects of the Imagination from The Walt Disney Family Museum
Walt Disney Timeline from The Walt Disney Family Museum
Timeline from The Dalí Museum
The Secret History of Salvador Dalí’s Disney Film by Trey Taylor
The Time Salvador Dalí Worked for Walt Disney by Mark Mancini
Destino from The Gala-Salvador Dalí Foundation

5 Must-Read Biographies and Memoirs for History Lovers

Biographies and memoirs are probably my favorite genre so I am sharing a few of my very favorites with you! Full disclosure: this post contains affiliate links. In no particular order…

course
The Girl with Seven Names by Hyeonseo Lee
This book chronicles Hyeonseo’s life in, and escape from, North Korea. She also talks a bit about the history of the country, how she was able to get her mother and brother out, and what it’s like for North Koreans who are able to defect. It’s eye-opening, anxiety-inducing, and an absolute must-read.

Lust for Life by Irving Stone
This is probably the definitive biography of Vincent van Gogh. It was even made into a fantastic movie starring Kirk Douglas as van Gogh. I should point out that it’s a biographical novel. (A genre I could personally do with more of.) Because it is technically a novel, Stone does take a bit of liberty with things. Overall, I think the liberties are minor enough that it’s still a fairly accurate biography. It’s a wonderful book that gives insight into Vincent’s life and art. He is such a misunderstood person and Lust for Life helps clear up some misconceptions.

Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child by Bob Spitz
I adore Julia Child. Adore her. This book is a behemoth but if you can get through it without falling in love with her, too, well then, I don’t know what to tell you. It is an encompassing biography, chronicling her life from her childhood in Pasadena to her days in France and Cambridge to her death in 2004. It’s been said a million times before but she really did change the way America cooks (and the way we learn to cook!) This is the first of Spitz’s books that I’ve read and I look forward to reading more of his work.

‘Tis: A Memoir and Teacher Man: A Memoir by Frank McCourt
We’ve all read Angela’s Ashes about McCourt’s childhood but ‘Tis and Teacher Man cover the rest of his (equally fascinating and heartbreaking) life. Read Angela’s Ashes if you haven’t and then follow it up with these two. Buy some tissues first, though.