You no doubt heard the upsetting news about the famous mask of King Tutankhamun last week: In attempt to clean it, the beard was broken off and incorrectly glued back on, in what is roundly being dubbed a “botched” job. This is upsetting for many reasons, but mostly for the fact that such an important work of Ancient Egyptian Art is endangered. At least one source has called the botchery “irreversible.” But now there is a glimmer of good news: A German curator, Christian Eckmann, who specializes in the restoration of ancient glass and metal, says the damage is in fact reversible. We can now sigh with relief.
The drama in Cairo has led many to decry the Egyptian conservators as careless, but that is a much larger issue into which I don’t feel prepared to dive. I will say that I visited the Egyptian Museum in Cairo back in 2005 and was struck by how differently it operated from most Western museums. The curation and care of objects seemed somewhat disorganized and there was a vague air of neglect about the collection; even some of the most famous works of art lacked that reverent, spotlit presentation of some of the most valuable objects on display in Western art museums. (See the extreme case of the Mona Lisa, which is nestled into a gated-off alcove, encased within bulletproof glass, and equipped with special lighting at the Louvre.) I chalked this difference up to money as well as to some level of desensitization.
This latter element is what really struck me when I visited Egypt. You can see how Egyptians might be so accustomed to their rich archeological heritage as to be inured to its splendor. My family saw the sites in and around Cairo as well as in the Valley of the Kings. It was a phenomenal trip and I was doe-eyed in the presence of so much beauty and history. We had a fantastic guide leading us through the sites at the Valley of the Kings and (in addition to the insight he provided about the sites) he talked to us a lot about just how much ancient art is still being uncovered in Egypt every day. Indeed, if you start to pay attention, you will notice small pieces of news about the discovery of a new tomb here or other archaeological site there. The sheer amount of sites being uncovered is staggering.
As a non-Egyptian who is not in view of this wealth of antiquity every day, these discoveries excite me. Living in a time when I can have video calls with family members from Seattle to London within the space of an hour, and can look up any information I could reasonably be searching for by pulling my phone out of my pocket, I find it immeasurably reassuring that there are still things yet to be discovered. There is still mystery in the world. Egypt’s antiquities are proof that terrific discoveries are waiting for us, and this keeps a childlike sense of wonder alive in me. Maybe the tomb of another King Tut will be discovered one of these days! In any case, we must do our best to care for our treasures as best we can once we’ve found them. I feel confident that King Tut and his mask will take this latest setback in stride and live on for another 3,000+ years.