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Tutmania at the Field Museum

Credit: © The Field Museum, Photographer Ron Testa

They waited in long lines (sometimes overnight) to enter the dimly lit corridors lined with ancient Egyptian artifacts. They emerged into a larger room holding the gold sarcophagus of the ruler who had died at age 19, King Tut. They exited through the gift shop, leaving the museum with scarves, tote bags, prints, and books emblazoned with his image. And if they had a little extra cash, they walked home with expensive replicas of what they’d just seen. It was Tutmania at the Field Museum in 1977 as The Treasures of King Tutankhamun (boy king of the New Kingdom in Egypt 3000 years earlier) came through town, breaking attendance records and adding millions of dollars to the city’s tourist trade. Nearly 1.3 million visitors attended during the four-month stop of the exhibit. It was on a six-city U.S. tour, the first time anything from the tomb discovered by Howard Carter in 1922 had come to America, and the whole thing had a rock star quality to it.

Tutankhamun’s legacy long surpassed his brief reign. Carter's discovery sparked such horror films as The Mummy and a wave of architectural imitation, most notably in Egyptian motifs found in glazed tile on art deco storage buildings built in the 1920s and early 1930s. The blockbuster exhibit revitalized the curiosity for all things ancient Egyptian. In 1978, comedian Steve Martin's novelty hit “King Tut” was first performed on Saturday Night Live, and went gold.