King Tut Exhibition Comes to Philadelphia: Penn Museum’s David P. Silverman Is National Curator

Exhibit Notes

By: James McClelland

Originally Published in 2006

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The international touring exhibition Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs will end its tour of the U.S. next year at Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute, February 3 to September 30, 2007. David P. Silverman, a guiding light during the first King Tut exhibition in the 1970s and the Penn Museum’s Curator-in-Charge of the Egyptian Section, is the National Curator of or this new exhibition. How did this come about? In the beginning the exhibition was only scheduled to visit two places in Europe: Basel, Switzerland, and Bonn, Germany. Then, an American company, Arts and Exhibitions, International,  approached Zahi Hawass, Secretary General of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities, about touring the show in America. When Hawass decided the show should come to the U.S., he wanted Silverman to be the National Curator.

“For several reasons,” says the affable Silverman. “Zahi Hawass was a former student of mine in the 1980s and he was a graduate of our Ph.D. program.” Given a Fulbright scholar­ship to study here, Hawass impressed Silverman with his intel­ligence, perseverance, and dedication. “When it was announced that the show would come to America, it was already in Basel. At Hawass’ suggestion, I was asked to go there, see the exhibition, and make decisions on how we could tell the story from the objects that had already been selected by Hawass.”

One of the sponsors of the traveling show is National Geographic—the last gallery in the exhibition is theirs. Essentially, it illus­trates the importance of science and new scientific techniques used by Egyptologists to learn more about the past. “In this case,” says Silverman, “it has to do directly with the CT scans that were performed on the mummy of Tutankhamun in January 2005. From their results, they found that the mummification process was not as bad as everyone had thought. Another thing we learned—but it also creates more mysteries—has to do with how Tut died. It’s very clear from these scans that he probably died at no more than 20 years of age. There have always been theories of how he died, and whether he was mur­dered. Books have been written on it and TV docu­mentaries produced and most Egyptologists now have dismissed this theory. The CT scans provide clear scientific evidence that the damage to the back of his head seems to be post-mortem and clearly not from a blow on the head, as suggested in 1968.”

“What was interesting was that on one of his legs above the knee there was clearly an injury that did not heal. There is some speculation—though it can’t be proven—that that injury might have become infected and that it might have led to blood poisoning. Considering what happens in a tropical climate, this would not have been an unusual case, and he, in fact, could have died from blood poisoning.”

What were Silverman’s responsibilities? “I was responsible for all the educational materials, the interpretation of the design, and the story line—the way the objects are set up and all the texts and labels that are associated with them. I had to make sure that everything was consistent and correct.” The biggest challenge was completing an exhibition of this magni­tude and scope in roughly a year’s time! One reason Hawass wanted Silverman to do this exhibition was that when the first King Tut show opened in the States in the 1970s, Silverman was the curator of the Chicago portion. Having written all the text panels and labels that traveled then, he was familiar with the nature of such a blockbuster exhibit—in fact, the original ‘blockbuster.’

The biggest problem Silverman faced was keeping track of all the text rewrites.“It went through a lot of phases and it went to the media so it was very difficulty to make sure we were all speaking with one voice and to make sure our aims and our goals were uniform.”

The Museum’s Own New Exhibit

To complement the new traveling Tut show, Penn Museum’s own special exhibit, Amarna, Ancient Egypt’s Place in the Sun, will run concurrently. Jennifer Houser Wegner and Josef W. Wegner will serve as co-curators for this exhibit, along with David Silverman. Opening in November 2006, this new exhibit will complement the traveling Tut show by concentrat­ing on the city of Amarna—where Tutankhamun spent his childhood—and the location where Tut’s father, Akhenaten, centered his revolutionary religion.

“What we’re doing is telling part of the story of Tut that is not actually in the touring exhibition,” says Silverman. “It’s pretty much a complement to what you’ll see at the Franklin Institute.” For example, several objects in the Museum’s exhibit will also directly relate to Tutankhamun. These include the only known black bronze figure of a kneeling Tut with sur­viving gold inlays, a figure of the god Amun represented with King Tut’s features (similar to one found in the traveling exhi­bition), and a figurine depicting the body of one of Tut’s half-sisters (complementing a figurine in the traveling exhibit that shows another half-sister’s head). Furthermore, the Museum’s exhibit will also display some everyday objects excavated from houses of ordinary people at Amarna.

“We’re interested in having many more visitors attend the Museum to learn about ancient Egypt,” says Silverman. “The exhibition at the Franklin Institute is a fantastic exhibition, but it’s only a small portion of ancient Egyptian history, roughly a century.” In contrast, Penn’s collection runs the gamut of almost 5,000 years of Egyptian civilization. With approxi­mately 40,000 catalogued objects from both Upper and Lower Egypt, it is the third-largest collection in the U.S. The Museum’s new exhibit will use about 2,000 sq. ft. of com­pletely redesigned space with about 150 objects on display, many never on exhibition before.”

So when Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of Pharaohs comes to the Franklin Institute, be sure to also visit the Penn Museum and become reacquainted with its Egyptian exhibits, both old and new.

JAMES McCLELLAND is a Philadelphia freelance writer who specializes in the arts and writes for Antiques & Fine Arts Magazine, Ceramics Monthly, Dance International, Magazine Antiques, and Pennsylvania Heritage Magazine, to name a few. He is also the Philadelphia Correspondent for Art & Antiques Magazine. He is the author of Fountains of Philadelphia (Stackpole, 2005).

Cite This Article

McClelland, James. "King Tut Exhibition Comes to Philadelphia: Penn Museum’s David P. Silverman Is National Curator." Expedition Magazine 48, no. 1 (March, 2006): -. Accessed May 30, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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