'A once-in-a-lifetime experience'

The ancient Egyptians placed great importance on the memory of names, inscribing them on statues and monuments so that the name and the person it honored would survive after death. If the belief holds true, then "Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs," which opens at the Field Museum Friday, promises to make the boy king truly immortal.

The traveling exhibit displays 130 artifacts taken from the tombs of Tutankhamun and other kings and nobles who lived during Egypt's 18th dynasty. Many of the objects have never been seen outside of Egypt and only a few were in Chicago's 1977 Tutankhamun exhibit.

"I hope it has a lasting effect on the people of Chicago who come because we envision it as an educational experience," said Jim Phillips, a curator at the Field Museum. "It's not an art show. We're putting objects on display but we're doing it with context."

The exhibit tells the story of the Egypt that Tutankhamun lived in, displaying a wide variety of historical monuments, religious art and everyday objects.

A giant head taken from a monumental sculpture of King Akhenaten gives the opportunity to discuss Tutankhamun's predecessor, who moved Egypt's capital and banned the worship of all gods except the sun disc. Traditional religious figures with blessings to Tutankhamun show how the new king, who ascended to power at age 9, restored the old religion. An ivory-and-gold board game found in Tutankhamun's tomb shows how the king spent his free time.

The exhibit is broken into a series of 11 rooms, a procession that builds suspense by first just mentioning Tutankhamun through work depicting his predecessors. Dim lighting and pictures of the 1922 excavation that found the tomb buried beneath the sand, still unmolested by the graverobbers who stole so much of Egypt's antiquities, try to recreate the sense of curiosity and awe that those archaeologists felt. When visitors finally reach the golden treasures, they appear suspended in glass cases, glittering in the darkness, as haunting music plays.

"It's certainly a theatrical presentation," Exhibition Designer Mark Lach said. "I hope it's not something that gets in the way of the objects, which are the most important things here. At the same time the theater and experience are important to exhibits now. Although the objects could stand on their own to give context, to give reference is important."

While Tutankhamun's actual mummy remains in Egypt's Valley of the Kings, the exhibit includes an animation of the seven ornate cases in which the mummy was found and the solid gold mask he wore. Also on display are a tiny coffin used to hold Tutankhamun's mummified organs, the massive gold coffin of an Egyptian noblewoman and a small funeral mask that covered the head of a stillborn child. Objects found beneath the mummy's wrappings include a gold ornamental dagger and a crown the king likely wore during official events.

Another area takes the study of Tutankhamun beyond relics to modern science. A series of CT scans of the mummy theorize how Tutankhamun might have looked and why he died so young -- at 19 -- by looking at his bones, muscles and even his wisdom teeth.

The exhibit caters to the large crowds that are expected to gather, even with a reservation system regulating how many people come in at a given time, with large descriptive labels placed high up so that many people can see them at once.

Still, visitors are encouraged to take their time and learn as much as they can.

"It's a once-in-a-lifetime experience," Lach said. "Short of going to Egypt, to Cairo, this is the only chance, so they should be viewed in an extraordinary way."

"Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs" will be on display until Jan. 1. Tickets are $25 for adults, $22 for seniors and students and $16 for children and include admission to the rest of the museum. A portion of the proceeds will benefit Egyptian conservation efforts.