David P. Silverman was a young Egyptologist laboring at the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute when he was approached one day in 1976 by the director, Gustavus F. Swift 3d.
"He said, 'You know, we're thinking about joining with the Field Museum and doing the Tut exhibit' " then being organized under the auspices of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, Silverman recalled the other day. " 'Do you want to do it?'
"I said: 'What do you mean, do it? Never mind! Yes!'
"And that's basically how it happened."
From such matter-of-fact beginnings sprang his association with the legendary Tut exhibit of the 1970s - "Treasures of Tutankhamun" - that drew eight million visitors to seven cities, launched the era of the blockbuster, tied exhibitions to museum-shop sales and revenue generation, and brought marketing razzle-dazzle front and center to the museum world. That's not even mentioning Steve Martin's 1978 hit tune.
Now Tut is back - grander, bolder, more expensive, a classic big-budget sequel slated to hit the boards Saturday at the Franklin Institute for a run through Sept. 30.
And Silverman, now professor and curator of Near Eastern languages at the University of Pennsylvania, is once again in the thick of it all, this time as "national curator" for "Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs."
"I wrote what's called the story line," Silverman said. "That's a term that's used - you could also call it the treatment."
The Tut II exhibition, put together by a host of corporations, nonprofits and the Egyptian government, is touring the country like Cats. It has already drawn more than a million to the Field Museum in Chicago, nearly a million to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and more than 600,000 to the Fort Lauderdale Museum of Art in Florida. Yesterday the Franklin Institute reported 400,000 advance tickets sold.
Those tickets are not cheap: Charges for adults range from $27.50 weekdays to $32.50 Friday through Sunday; for children ages 4 to 11, the cost is $17.50. Museum officials said they expected more than a million visitors to the exhibition.
Back in the 1970s, when Silverman signed on to organize Tut's presentation at the Field, other museums involved in the exhibit wanted to make use of his work as well.
"The National Gallery asked me if I would write all of the text and all of the labels," Silverman recalled. "They said they would send somebody out from Washington who was an art educator and he would . . . expertize it. I'd never heard that word."
Tut I was a phenomenon. It broke attendance records at every museum. Merchandisers and marketers launched a thousand products. Not the least of the retailers was the Metropolitan Museum of Art itself, which issued the first-ever museum sales catalog, keyed to Tut, and sold high-end jewelry and replicas cast from artifact molds.
Product spin-offs hit every market.
"I have scrapbooks of some of the stuff," Silverman said. ". . . The Chicago Tribune did iron-on T-shirts. There was Tut makeup. Every time I went someplace, someone gave me a gift. I have sheets. I have dishes."
In the 1920s, after Howard Carter's discovery of Tut's tomb in 1922, the world saw its first outbreak of Egyptomania, which flooded homes everywhere with pharaonic kitsch.
For one thing, newspapers loved the story of Tut's discovery. Carter had failed to find any tombs of significance, but given one last chance, he returned to the field. Four days later, a young Egyptian helper stumbled over a hidden step. Diggers quickly uncovered a staircase, and Carter realized he had lucked into the first wholly sealed tomb of a pharaoh.
The papers loved the story of Tut as well: a boy king who ascended to the throne at the age of 8 or 9 and died mysteriously a decade later. Rumors of a curse were concocted when the financier backing Carter's expedition died suddenly. Movies were made, with Boris Karloff portraying a living mummy.
That allure was still powerful decades later, in the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate late '70s.
"We needed some diversion, something positive," Silverman said. "And I think this was it."
But Tut I didn't simply arrive in the 1970s and passively welcome visitors - Tut was sold. And with Tut II, the level of marketing has ratcheted up.
Exhibition organizers and backers include AEG Live Exhibitions, a unit of AEG Live, which also sponsors Celine Dion's "A New Day" at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. Arts and Exhibitions International, a private company run by two Clear Channel Communications veterans whose other current offering is "Diana: A Celebration," provides organizational experience.
The National Geographic Society is the nonprofit force behind the national tour, turning out books and video offerings, and drumming up publicity (the society sponsored a "forensic examination" of Tut's mummified remains, for instance, complete with CSI-like CAT scans).
The exhibit's 130 artifacts - including Tut's royal diadem (but not his famous gold death mask, which Egyptian authorities will not allow out of the country) and exquisite gold coffinette, which once housed the king's liver - were selected by Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities under the direction of Zahi Hawass, council secretary-general and a former student of Silverman's at Penn.
According to John Norman, head of Arts and Exhibitions, the Egyptian government has been guaranteed $20 million plus a percentage of the gate, which will go to conservation and construction of a museum in Cairo.
Asked about all the middlemen and marketers involved with the tour, Norman said his company and AEG put the whole costly package together; insurance alone was astronomical, he said.
"At the end of the day, these objects wouldn't be in the United States and doing this tour if it wasn't for us being around to meet the financial demands," Norman said. "We're talking millions of dollars it takes to produce this."
Tim Leiweke, head of AEG, put a little perspective on it. "I'm not sure there's so much difference between Tutankhamun and Celine Dion," he joked to USA Today. "It's about entertaining people, moving them emotionally, making them feel good about the time and money spent."
Silverman begs to differ a bit.
"There is a difference," he said. "[Celine Dion] never told a story. That's a big difference. That's a one-time thing. She comes out. They do it for a couple of hours. People go home. I'd say that's closer to an art exhibit. You go there. You appreciate it. You walk away.
"Whereas this represents involvement. I want real involvement. I want people to feel."
After Tut departed the United States the last time, Silverman decided to leave Chicago and take a position at Penn, which is now showing a Tut companion exhibition, "Amarna: Ancient Egypt's Place in the Sun." He cocurated the show with Jennifer Wegner, research specialist in the University Museum's Egyptian section, and Josef Wegner, associate curator and professor in the section.
The "Tut Trolley" will ferry visitors between the Franklin Institute and the University Museum through September.
"When I left Chicago," mused Silverman, "everyone said to me, 'What are you going to do for an encore?' It took me 26 years to answer it."
"Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs" opens Saturday at the Franklin Institute, 222 N. 20th St., and runs through Sept. 30.
Tickets are timed and dated, for admission between 9 a.m. and 8 p.m. daily. Adults $27.50 ($32.50 Fri-Sun); seniors, students and military with ID $24 (Fri-Sun $30); children 4-11 $17.50. Group tickets available.
See more about the Penn museum's companion exhibition, "Amarna," via http://go.philly.com/