People queuing for hours, sometimes throughout the night, often to face closed doors. This wasn’t Russia during the First World War, but London in 1972. People were not queuing for bread, but for gold.
Some of you may remember the 1972 Tutankhamun exhibition held by the British Museum, the first ‘blockbuster’ exhibition in the UK. A miracle of museology, bringing together objects from the tomb of the boy king discovered virtually intact half a century before, it was also a masterpiece in terms of diplomacy and negotiations. And a logistical and security nightmare.
The possibility of a Tutankhamun exhibition at the British Museum was first raised in 1967, but the idea only really started to take shape in 1969, for an exhibition to start in the spring of 1972 (T 227/3204). The negotiations were described as ‘some splendid muddle’ by John Henniker, of the British Council; the general feeling was that too many people were involved too soon (FCO 39/570). Having waded through the files with a Civil Service List close at hand, I can only concur. Can you imagine ‘War and Peace’ transposed to a governmental setting? Right. You’re not even close.
The first draft of an inter-governmental agreement between the UK and Egypt (then known as the United Arab Republic) was circulated in the winter of 1969 but the negotiations dragged along and the opening date remained uncertain.
The first issue was money. Although everybody was very enthusiastic at the idea of such an exhibition, no government department was prepared to pay for it. In 1969, Lord Thomson of Fleet announced that Times Newspaper Ltd was prepared to sponsor the exhibition. The Committee appointed by the Trustees of the British Museum thought there was ‘historical justification for the association with the Times‘, but as exclusive rights had not gone down too well with Egyptian nationalists in 1922, it was agreed The Times would not demand exclusive coverage (FCO 39/570). Continue reading »