Extolling the Virtues of Blockbuster Museum Exhibitions in the Form of a Rant

There are two blockbuster cultural exhibits happening simultaneously in Atlanta. Tutankhamun: The Golden King and The Great Pharaohs and The First Emperor: China’s Terracotta Army.

Due to heavy promotion of these events over the past year, I went to both with high expectations. 

Tutankhamun: The Golden King
The “world’s most famous dead guy” exhibit is sponsored by the Carlos Museum. For those of you who don’t know, the Carlos is Emory University’s renowned on-campus museum specializing in, among other things, wrapped dead people from Egypt. One would think that a museum whose primary purpose is to educate and whose parent organization happens to be one of the wealthiest universities in the country would be able to put together an exhibition that was affordable for families and students. 

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Not so, A full-price adult ticket costs $27.50 and each child can gain entrance for a meager $16.50. A Family 4 Pack will cost $16.50 per person. It is worth noting that tickets must be purchased through the greatest rip-off service of all timeTicketmaster. Which means, you will need to tack on to the cost of each ticket an additional $6.25 for bullshit service charges and fees

Want an audio tour?  $7 please. Would you like to see the 3-d movie too?  You don’t need the last $5 in your wallet to feed your kid do you?  The grand total for one adult, if all extras are purchased, tops out at  $45.75. I’m lucky to have a professor in the house who was able to sneak me in for free on the special “Educator’s Preview” night.

And, wouldn’t you know, there isn’t a student discount either. Fuck you Carlos Museum and Emory University! If this doesn’t give you a sense of how unabashadly money-grubbing this institution is ... I don’t know what will ... oh, wait ... yes, I do ... Pay a visit to the Carlos Museum some time. It’s free!  But, not really. 

A visit to the Carlos Museum is, in fact, free. However, the moment you walk in the door you can expect to be harassed relentlessly for a “donation” by a large un-museum-ish woman behind the front desk. Gee, how much do you suppose a respectable “donation” is to a museum that is (1) free and (2) is supported by an educational institution that receives “gifts” from a wide variety of organizations such as Coca Cola Corporation and boasts an endowment of more than four and one half billion (with a “B”) dollars?

If the Carlos were honest enough to simply require an entry fee, it would be perfectly fine. Trying to mask an entry fee by calling it a “donation” is simply dishonest and, frankly, pathetic.  More so, when you are confronted by a bellow from an unfriendly  “donation” collecting troll the moment you walk in the door. Turns out a respectable mandatory “donation” to these bastards is $7. My advice, simply tell the obnoxious desk-lady to go screw.

Whew, I feel better now ... Ticket costs aside, the Tut exhibition is marvelous. There isn’t a tremendous amount of Tut paraphernalia to be seen. In fact, only fifty (50) of the more than 5000 objects found in the tomb are on exhibit. Old man Tut is not there.  His famous bejeweled sarcophagus is not there ... Although, you can see an exquisite mini version called a canopic “coffin” that once held his intestines.

There are some absolutely incredible examples of Egyptian jewelry on display. The craftsmanship of these pieces is simply stunning. One has to wonder why the skills necessary to create such masterpieces never filtered down to modern jewelry designers. Kay Jewelers? C’mon. Preeminent architect, Frank Gehry, designs wearable garbage that Tiffany’s sells for thousands and it doesn’t hold a candle to these ancient masters.

The exhibit was especially nice because it was designed to allow packed crowds to move through the galleries without feeling as though you were in a room with a packed crowd.

The exhibit is excellent and mildy educational, but it was never “created” to be anything other than a money-making machine. The cost of a single ticket alone proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that education and art appreciation were never the foremost consideration for the exhibition sponsors. If you can afford the cost of a ticket, go.  If not, you can learn more from a text book. 

Which leads me to the High Museum’s First Emperor exhibit. 

The First Emperor: China’s Terracotta Army
The High Museum has been soliciting donations and advertising this exhibit for the better part of the past year. And, yes, I especially expected this exhibit to be something special. Unfortunately, membership doesn’t guarantee anything other than the promise of a January membership renewal. Look, I have supported the High for nearly 14 years. With the exception of their (Olympics) Rings exhibit, I can’t say I have been “blown away” by any exhibit before or since. The High simply has a long track record of completely underwhelming the museum goer, despite their absurdly expensive custom-designed new digs and high admission prices.

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Sorry folks, but this exhibit is a major let-down. Perhaps my expectations were too high. Perhaps. But, immediately upon entering the first gallery, you recognize how pathetically bad High curators are at organizing display galleries for efficient people movement. These PHD-holding numbskulls need to plan a trip to Disney to see how the masters move masses of people through tight places in an orderly fashion.

The large first gallery contains five smallish exhibit stands. One at the entrance and then two each in narrow rows on the opposite side of the gallery. On the walls, high on the walls, a rather banal video reenactment of “ancient” China is displayed. The paired exhibit stands are two-sided and are divided by a vertical banner with text. The text on the banners is obscured by anyone standing anywhere near because it was designed for little people to read easily. Each two-sided display case holds small objects that are difficult to see unless your nose is pressed against the glass.  Even the text descriptions are below the line of sight of the average sized person. Combine this with a narrow passage between the two rows and the result is a complete LA-style congestion problem. Gas odors and all. Honestly, this clusterfuck has to be the worst people movement of any exhibit ever conceived by High curators. The lines shuffling through this avoidable congestion zone was moving along so slowly that I had plenty of time to study the faint cut lines from plastic surgery on the Buckhead Betty in front of me. Decent work. Anyone who suffers from claustrophobia would be well advised to skip this first room altogether. The objects in the cases aren’t particularly interesting anyway. The crossbow is cool, but it’s a recreation.

The 2,200-year-old Terracotta Army was discovered by accident by local farmers back in 1974. Approximately 8,000 figures were eventually excavated along with horses, copper armor, chariots, and a wide variety of other objects. The artistry of the warriors is spectacular. While there are specific features common to all that helped categorize a general from a foot soldier, each soldier’s face was unique from the next. Even more astonishing, the artisans carved the faces to reflect the ethnic diversity of the army. 

I didn’t expect to see fifty of them lined up in formation just like the pictures I had seen in text books. But, I also didn’t expect to see that very same picture enlarged on the rear gallery wall as a backdrop to an “army” of eight clay soldiers plus a horse (the London exhibit had 20 statues). Eight heavily restored soldiers that may or may not have been fakes. See, in the audio tour, you are told that way back in the Chinese day, the Emperor Qin (Pronounced “Chin”, hence “China”) wasn’t much liked. So, shortly after he died and was buried in his massive tomb with his earthenware army, a general, who didn’t much care for the Emperor, ransacked the complex and burned the wooden structure that housed the soldiers to the ground. The bonfire caused the heavy roof timbers to collapse and crush the entire fragile army. That is the only mention of the devastation of the tomb. No plaques, no descriptions, just an off-hand statement uttered during the audio commentary. In other words, the army as we know it wasn’t unearthed standing in perfect battle formation ... like the pictures. What the exhibit makes painfully obvious is that the only real way to experience the splendor of the Terracotta Army is to travel to Shaanxi, China and see the tomb in person.

Other than that, there isn’t a whole lot to see or read in the exhibit for the $19 non-member admission price. Sparse is a good description.

What both exhibits lacked in the number of artifacts on display, the gift shops made up for in kitsch garbage.

My favorite aspect of modern museum special events is the unavoidable gift shop that concludes every damned one of these blockbuster exhibits. Oh, how I love gift shops. Praise be to the god of merchandising. What would we do without a King Tut Baseball? The Tut shop is massive and offers such collectables as Tut Kleenex dispensers (no kidding), Tut pens, bobbleheads, hand bags, purses, wall hangings, action figures, figurines, and masks.

No slouch, the High Museum end-of-exhibit shop offers books, posters, prints, mouse pads, terracotta warrior statuettes, coloring books, place mats, postcards, mugs, warrior patterned scarves, and plush dragon puppets (kind of cool) ... fuck me

It’s no small wonder our children are the worst educated of all advanced countries. Our educational system is worse than pathetic, college tuition is beyond the reach of most American middle-class families, exhibition ticket prices are outrageous, and instead of focusing on teaching ... the whole glorified purpose of these “educational” events is to get people to buy junk they don’t need in lieu of learning.

But hey, every time they blow their nose, they can remind themselves, “I went to see King Tut!” ... and, then put their gooey snot rag in their shiny collectable canopic coffin.