AGO banks on King Tut to boost attendance
Published Monday, November 23, 2009 1:16PM EST
Thousands of people are being lured to Toronto's Art Gallery of Ontario by an Egyptian king who continues to draw attention more than 2,000 years after his mysterious death.
More than 50,000 advance tickets have been snapped up for the King Tutankhamen exhibit by history buffs itching to learn more about the pharaoh known as the boy king and the objects unearthed in his tomb 87 years ago.
The exhibit, which opens Tuesday, is back for the first time in 30 years and it will be the only chance people will have to see it on Canadian soil before the collection is permanently returned to Cairo, Egypt.
This time around the exhibit has 130 artifacts, most of which are entirely different from the last time the exhibit was in town in 1979. This show will also include artifacts from other pharaohs, including Hatshepsut, the only woman, and Khufu, whose famous pyramid is the only remaining structure from the ancient seven wonders of the world.
"In this case, we're looking at a number of the pharaohs that preceded him and what happened after. So we've got stuff about his parents or his purported parents, whereas in 1979 it was just King Tut all the time," said Matthew Teitelbaum, the AGO's director and CEO.
More than 750,000 people visited the AGO's King Tut display 30 years ago, breaking attendance records in the two months it was in town. The travelling exhibit spawned "Tut Mania" in newspaper headlines across North America and even Steve Martin's famous Saturday Night Live parody.
This time, the exhibit will be in Toronto for five months, not just two--so high attendance is again expected. Pressure is so high that tickets are time-stamped with half an hour time slots to get people moving efficiently.
Tut continues to intrigue because he died mysteriously when he was about 18-years-old. The 2,000-year-old artifacts on display were dug up from Tutankhamen's tomb in 1922 and are considered archeological treasures because they are well intact.
One example is a three-metre-tall statue of the pharaoh which still has its original paint.
The show will feature a range of artifacts, including an iconic golden sarcophagus that held Tut's mummified stomach, the gold sandals found on his mummy, and even gold finger and toe covers.
Gallery is banking on attendance boost
The AGO is banking on this exhibit to attract new visitors since it reopened last November after a year-long shut down due to a $276 million renovation designed by celebrity architect Frank Gehry.
In the year since the gallery reopened, it has seen 700,000 visitors, and the goal is to have one million visitors annually by 2012. The gallery used to get about half a million each year, before the renovation.
A spokesperson for the AGO told ctvtoronto.ca that the hope is shows like King Tut will attract new audiences who might not normally visit.
Half of the people who bought tickets for King Tut tour stops in other cities had never visited those museums before, and the AGO hopes that trend will continue in Toronto.
The gallery has struggled financially lately, and announced in March that it planned to lay off 100 employees, blaming the economy. In April, the Ontario government gave the AGO an $ 8.6 million one-time grant, and increased its annual operating grant by $10 million. The province also gave money to other Ontario cultural museums and galleries who are struggling due to the recession.
"What I can really hope is... that people will come, they'll be intrigued, they'll see out of the corner of their eye something else that grabs their attention and think to themselves 'I will come back,'" Matthew Teitelbaum, AGO director and CEO told CTV Toronto.
The exhibit has pulled out all the stops to draw people in and buy tickets, which range from $16.50 for kids to $28.50 for adults. It includes a 3-D National Geographic documentary explaining the historical significance of the objects, the gallery restaurant features an Egyptian menu, and the audio guide is narrated by Hollywood superstar Harrison Ford. An eight metre tall statue of Anubis, Egypt's jackal-headed god of the underworld, was installed by crane outside the museum in hopes of getting people to take a look inside.
"The fact that these objects are so old and in such an incredible condition, it almost looks like they were put there yesterday and we're just very fortunate that the Egyptian government has entrusted us to bring these out of Egypt," John Norman of Arts and Exhibitions International, the organization that runs the travelling exhibition told CTV Toronto.