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Originally published Thursday, May 24, 2012 at 10:41 PM

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Art review

'Tutankhamun' in Seattle: artifacts both dazzling and humble

Seattle is the last stop for "Tutankhamun: The Golden King and the Great Pharaohs" before the exhibit's contents make a permanent return to Egypt. The exhibit will be at Pacific Science Center through Jan. 6, 2013.

Seattle Times arts writer

EXHIBITION REVIEW

'Tutankhamun: The Golden King and the Great Pharaohs'

10 a.m.-5 p.m. Mondays and Wednesdays-Fridays, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays. Exhibition runs through Jan. 6, 2013; advance-ticket purchase strongly recommended. Tickets: $15.50-$32.50 (800-664-8775 or www.pacific-sciencecenter.org).
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We went yesterday and it took us just over an hour to get through with the audio guide.... MORE
That photo is somewhat misleading. That is not Tutankhamun's funerary mask. It is not... MORE
That is correct. THE mask of Tutankhamun, the iconic one, is permanently in the museum... MORE

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With the arrival of "Tutankhamun: The Golden King and the Great Pharaohs" at Pacific Science Center, several kinds of history are being made.

Wednesday's press preview came on the very day when Egypt was holding its first-ever free elections. Dr. Mohamed Ibrahim Aly Sayed, Egypt's minister of antiquities and chief of the Egyptian delegation attending the show's Seattle opening, made note of that fact and followed it with an impassioned speech asking for American support of Egypt's emerging democracy.

In local terms, the return of a new King Tut exhibit to Seattle is an unexpected privilege. Adults who were children in 1978 and saw the Seattle Art Museum's King Tut exhibit now have the chance to take their own kids to this even-larger show.

Remember, however: This is really your last chance. Egypt has announced this is the last time these artifacts will leave that country, and Seattle is the traveling exhibit's final stop.

So what do you see when you enter the double doors to the exhibit?

The figure of King Khafre, who reigned from 2576-2551 B.C. and built the Great Sphinx and the second largest pyramid at Giza, presides at the entrance: a statue of seemingly glowing calcite alabaster. It's the oldest item on display, but in better shape than some exhibit pieces from 2,000 years later — including a colossal quartzite statue of Tutankhamun himself.

The first half of the show continues with sculptures of pharaohs, priests and dignitaries, leading up to and beyond Tutankhmun's brief reign, which began in 1333 B.C. Beautifully arrayed and lit, almost all the pieces have room enough to walk around them.

Explanatory labels are attached on multiple sides of each piece, and smaller items in cases are shown with labels at both the bottom and top of the case, making them easy for children to read.

Highlights include a sarcophagus for a young prince's cat from the 14th century B.C.; a small but exquisite quartzite "Head of an Amarna Princess," possibly depicting a daughter of Akhenaten and Nefertiti; and an unusual two-figure statue of architect Senenmut and Princess Neferure, dating from the reign of Hatshepsut (1479-1458 B.C.), that — in form — resembles a Christian madonna and child, albeit with a reversal of gender.

Still more unusual is the exhibit's only work in unbaked painted clay and stucco: a head of Amenhotep III, who reigned 1410-1372 B.C.

The culmination of this first phase of the exhibit is that colossal statue of Tutankhamun squared off against a regal statue of his father, Akhenaten (whose paternity was determined in 2010 by DNA tests). The latter's extraordinarily long face and high cheekbones set him physically as much apart from his heirs and ancestors as his monotheistic beliefs did.

The items from King Tut's tomb, of course, are the main draw. They're arranged in galleries that mimic the tomb's floor plan. Dazzling gold jewelry, masks and personal items shine from inside protective cases. Especially beguiling are the shabtis (statuettes in a variety of materials) that were buried with the boy king so as to perform any forced labor he was asked to do in the afterlife.

The most opulent piece may be the "Canopic Coffinette," a mini-coffin made of gold, carnelian, semiprecious stones and glass that held the young king's stomach. Yet the most moving items on display aren't necessarily the most splendid.

A model boat, a bed that Tutankhamun may have slept in, a game box of carved ivory with its pieces still in its drawers — all speak more of simple humanity than divine or royal presence. There's some wear and tear on them (the woven-reed matting of the wood-frame bed has a small hole in it). But in their way, they're more alive than the boy king himself — as a startlingly lifelike (or should I say "deathlike"?) replica of Tut's mummy reminds you as you exit the gift shop.

Another reminder of life's brevity and the seeming immortality of some artifacts comes with a shot from a 1922 film of the discovery of King Tut's tomb. You'll recognize items seen in the exhibit being carefully extracted from the Egyptian sands. Then the tomb's discoverer, Howard Carter, beams toward the camera and tips his hat. It's as eerie an experience as seeing Tutankhamun's playthings.

An audio guide can be rented — introduced by Harrison Ford, with dramatically intoned commentaries by Egyptian archaeologist Zahi Hawass — that expands on the labels' details. Plan on three hours or so to get through the show if you're going at audio-guide pace.

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@seattletimes.com

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