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Egyptian Museum -- and King Tut's mask -- near focus of Cairo protests

January 29, 2011 | 11:12 am

Tut mask AP File Photo Fast-moving developments are bringing tens of thousands of anti-government protesters into Cairo's Tahrir Square, not far from the Egyptian Museum, where many of the nation's most treasured antiquities are stored. Plans have been underway for nearly 20 years to build a new museum outside the city near the site of the pyramids, partly because the overcrowded current structure -- more than 100 years old -- cannot adequately accommodate its fabled collection and partly to continue developing the cultural tourism on which the poor country's economy so heavily depends.

Conflicting reports out of Cairo, now in its fifth day of turmoil, say that either protesters or the military or both have largely secured the museum -- although in a chaotic situation such as this, the cultural treasure cannot be said to be out of the woods until the unrest finally settles. (Unconfirmed reports note damage to two mummies within the building, and CNN showed film Saturday morning of some shattered display cases.)

Baghdad's famed antiquities museum went unsecured during the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and suffered considerable damage. How long the Egyptian Museum and its irreplaceable artifacts will be in danger remains to be seen.

The most famous object in the museum is of course the golden burial mask of the "Boy King," Tutankhamun. Artistically speaking, it might not be the greatest work in the collection, since Tut's brief era represented mostly a holding pattern in the long and often astounding history of Pharaonic art. But, ever since its startling discovery in the 1920s, Tut has grown in stature to become the literal face of Egypt on the world stage -- even more than the inscrutable (and crumbling) Great Sphinx of Giza, which once held that exalted position.

The process was accelerated by Egypt's government, which has shrewdly used Tut for political purposes. In 2005, when a controversial exhibition of Tut's artifacts came to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, I wrote about how the Boy King had been used first as an international cultural ambassador in the 1970s and then as a representative for a new era of global corporatism. Sooner or later, expect him to be pressed into service once more. In coming months and years, after Egypt's riveting current unrest settles, it will be interesting to see how King Tut is deployed on the world stage again, as he has been in the past.

My 2005 essay on Tut's recent history can be found here.

-- Christopher Knight

Photo: Burial mask of Tutankhamun. Credit: Assocaited Press

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