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The “Toutânkhamon et son temps” (“Tutankhamun and his times”) exhibition held at the Petit Palais in 1967

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The “Toutânkhamon et son temps” (“Tutankhamun and his times”) exhibition held at the Petit Palais in 1967

A few days before Christmas 1966, a French military aircraft landed on the runway of Bourget airport, carrying part of the funerary treasure of the pharaoh Tutankhamun, escorted by the French Egyptologist Christiane Desroches-Noblecourt, who was at the time a curator in the Department of Egyptian Antiquities in the Musée du Louvre; the heavy objects were transported on a ship. The Egyptian Arab Republic loaned France thirty-two artefacts from the king’s impressive burial furniture, complemented by thirteen objects from the Egyptian Museum, in Cairo, all intended for an exhibition held at the Petit Palais entitled ‘Toutânkhamon et son temps’ (‘Tutankhamun and his times’).

Inaugurated on 16 February 1967, in the presence of André Malraux, the then Minister of Culture, and his Egyptian counterpart Saroïte Okacha, the exhibition fulfilled the longstanding ambition of its curator: Christiane Desroches-Noblecourt wished to give the French public an opportunity to view the fascinating objects discovered in November 1922 by Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon in the pharaoh’s unplundered tomb. Apart from the undeniable aesthetic aspects of the works and objects exhibited, which attested to the finesse and beauty of Egyptian art at the end of the Eighteenth Dynasty, its main objective was to highlight the splendour of the objects and enable the general public to gain an insight into their true functions. In their desire to contextualise the displayed objects, the exhibition organisers even added floral decorations next to the display cases that resembled the large bouquets offered to the dead in antiquity. Christiane Desroches-Noblecourt organised the nine exhibition rooms around the life and death of King Tutankhamun, with a particular focus on the burial rites. At the end of the exhibition itinerary, in a carnelian-carpeted room, visitors discovered the king’s famous gold mask, which had been brought under guard to the exhibition site on the eve of the inauguration on board an Air France tourist plane.

From the outset after its inauguration, the exhibition ‘Tutankhamun and his times’ was highly popular, and the contemporary press spoke of the ‘wonder’ and ‘contemplation’ of the general public as they beheld the exhibited works. Such was the popularity of the exhibition that some days up to 12,000 people visited the Petit Palais and the exhibition notices had to be remade in large-format versions and placed above each case so that everyone could see them. The decision was taken to extend the duration of the exhibition, which was initially scheduled to end on 15 June 1967, to 4 September. ‘Tutankhamun and his times’ was viewed by 1,241,000 visitors, with queues extending each day onto Avenue Winston Churchill and the Champs Élysées; for the cartoonist Sempé, working for L’Express, it was a veritable phenomenon of ‘contemporary life’. One of the first blockbuster exhibitions, ‘Tutankhamun and his times’ also symbolised the good relations that existed between France and Egypt, after the Suez Canal crisis, and it helped fund the campaign to save the monuments of Nubia—threatened by the construction of the dam at Aswan—, which was largely coordinated by Christiane Desroches-Noblecourt and Saroïte Okacha. The profits from the entry tickets and requests to take photos were allocated to the protection and saving of monuments threatened with disappearance under Lake Nasser.

 

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