“Despite the debate in the museum world about the value of blockbuster exhibitions, … the show became a watershed in the cultural history of New Orleans, with people speaking of ‘before Tut’ and ‘after Tut.’” -Prescott N. Dunbar*
Last week, with the death of Encyclopedia Britannica’s print edition, I toured Hard Truths: The Art of Thornton Dial and thought about information. I researched the show beforehand on NOMA’s new and improved website, impressed with the museum’s education efforts, particularly in sharing the exhibition with Middle School children.
In my youth, the show was Treasures of Tutankhamun, and the research came not from websites and social media, but from small images and dense text in a fat set of alphabetized books lined up along the school library wall. There were no links, no games, and no videos. Outside of Encyclopedia Britannica, Tut existed only in Egypt until one magical year it visited six U.S. museums, including the New Orleans Museum of Art, its only southern stop. I sat last Monday on a bench in Hard Truths (reviewed here by D. Eric Bookhardt for Gambit) and googled 'Selket' on my iPhone, triggering a flashback:
At 4:00 a.m. on December 26th 1977, my mother, giddy, woke me.
“Hurry up, Wendy Anne. Wear your new coat. It’s cold.”
I was ten.
Along with my younger cousin Kelly, we left my uncle’s house at 484 Fairfield Drive in Gretna, Louisiana on a moonless, stormy night. We ate pop tarts in my mother’s canary yellow Oldsmobile as we drove across the Mississippi River and a then-single Greater New Orleans Bridge to a parking lot located somewhere in Mid-City. With hundreds of families we waited one hour in the dark for a bus that carried us past a Nile-blue painted Lelong Avenue and the New Orleans Museum of Art to a distant City Park path, where we joined thousands of people already in line.
I recall clearly the $10 in my mother’s purse, an amount that translated to either the double album (with fold-out pictures) of the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, which I did not receive for Christmas, or to admission for two children (50 cents each), one adult ($1), and the full-color exhibition catalogue ($6.95 plus tax), amounts I’ve confirmed according to the brochure still tucked within the now treasured book on my shelf.
By lunchtime, it sleeted, and we were six hours already in line.
“You girls decide,” said my mom, who huddled near a fire-filled steel drum without us, lest we blacken our white rabbit fur coats, Christmas gifts from our grandmother.
We’re staying! I exclaimed, even as we resisted the Valley of the King hot dogs, knowing their purchase meant giving up the catalogue.
“The Fairmont Hotel chefs have created a special Pharaonic menu for the Pavilion,” states the exhibition brochure, “featuring such specialties as Egyptian dolmathes, Lotus of the Nile Salad, and Sphinx Burgers.”
On my mother’s limited budget, considerably less than that of the rest of her family, NOMA’s King Tut Fast Food Pavilion might as well have served lobster and filet mignon.
The couple beside us overheard our discussion and, in a gesture I’ll remember for the rest of my life, shared their sandwiches. Kelly and I ate quickly, and my mother went without.
As the dull day darkened further, we reached the holding tent and, at 4:00 p.m., sat for the first time.
According to museum historian Prescott N. Dunbar:
NOMA and City Park leaders “oversaw the installation of a temporary transformer for electricity for the tents and for lighting in the bleachers that were built to seat the crowds awaiting entry to the Museum. [They] supervised the installation of sewage and water lines to the tents as well as the installation of air conditioning and heating for the tent.” (Dunbar, p. 306*)
I first learned of the heat, however, in Dunbar’s account. On that below-freezing day, I recall huddling, tired and hungry, with my mother and cousin on the icy metal bleachers. It was there, in the tent, that we despaired.
After nearly twelve hours in line, we walked in the early evening through one last burst of sleet into the New Orleans Museum of Art. The heat hit us hard, and my nine year-old cousin blocked others from the door as she fainted.
Get up! I screamed, shaking her, as my mother, shocked, tried to pull me off. People stared, and a guard radioed for medical assistance.
From a bench, a nurse revived Kelly with juice and smelling salts, suggesting we abandon our plans. My mother saw it on my face: I was too young, crushed, and self-centered to give up King Tut, even for the cousin I loved. We entered Treasures of Tutankhamun, the greatest wonder of my short ten years, surpassing even The Three Tenors and the Roman Coliseum in the following thirty-five.
It was the golden goddess Selket, who stood my height and wore a scorpion on her head, that most captured me. From the catalogue:
Selket “is one of four goddesses who stood outside the gilded wooden shrine that housed the chest containing Tutankhamun’s mummified internal organs, the goddesses’ outstretched arms spreading protection over their charges. Selket’s divine role was not limited to funerary duties: also associated with childbirth and nursing, she was chiefly noted for her control of magic.”
Concerned for Kelly, we spent less than an hour within NOMA’s exhibition, and yet it changed my life, setting me on a course for Art History. My mother and I returned the next day to our home in Fort Walton Beach, Florida, where I held court with our Tut catalogue each Friday afternoon, the star of my 5th grade class show-and-tell.
With my mother’s help, I created a life-size papier mache sculpture of Selket, painting her in gold. I remember my hand shaking as I applied her black eyebrows and eyeliner. That March, on my eleventh birthday, I carried Selket onto the school bus and shared her with my class. Like the exhibition itself, that day stands out as one of the happiest of my childhood, made all the more so by my mother’s gift, the Saturday Night Fever double album.
Today, in a life I never imagined, I’m on the Board of Trustees of the New Orleans Museum of Art. I meet artists, museum directors and collectors. I’m spoiled with V.I.P. access, world-class lectures, and gala events. I enjoy fine dinners within the very room where I once stood as a child staring at Tutankhamun’s solid gold funeral mask. I’m at the museum at least once a week, oftentimes more, absorbing not only today’s exhibitions and programming, but also the classic paintings and decorative arts that enticed me on every New Orleans visit as a child.
I have not forgotten where my love of art began, nor what it means to part with lunch money in exchange for a museum visit.
I also walk, as I did often with my mother, in the Besthoff Sculpture Garden, a perfect amalgamation of the finest Modern and Contemporary artwork and the finest Louisiana terrain, recalling a long day thirty-five years ago, before the sculptures, when a line snaked through those same trees.
Within this garden I reflect not only on a winter’s day, but also on the sculpture positioned among the oaks, a three-sided Blue Dog created by George Rodrigue and installed by Mr. and Mrs. Besthoff, a priceless gift for me in my mother’s memory.
-Admission to the Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden is free-
-Admission to the New Orleans Museum of Art is $10-
-Membership to the New Orleans Museum of Art starts at $60. For a list of perks at this level and others, visit NOMA’s website, linked here-
-A new book on the sculpture garden features every work in the collection and is available, beginning next month, in the NOMA Museum Shop-
*The book The New Orleans Museum of Art: The First Seventy-Five Years by Prescott N. Dunbar is available in the NOMA Museum Shop and is a fascinating read-
-Finally, this post is dedicated to former NOMA Deputy Director Jackie Sullivan, who saved a lotus blossom necklace from NOMA's Treasures of Tutankhamun and presented it to me three years ago on the occasion of her retirement-