Spectacle_Treasures of Tutankhamun

Figure 1. “Treasures of Tutankhamun,” The British Museum, March 30 – December 30, 1972

Abigail Matses

The spectacle refers neither to an image nor collection of images, but to the social relationships between viewers “mediated by the image.”1 This relationship manifests itself as a feeling of wonder or awe that is a distraction from the capitalistic framework that governs contemporary society.2 This concept of the spectacle was developed by the Marxist theorist Guy Debord in his 1967 publication The Society of the Spectacle. Debord maintained a pessimistic outlook on the phenomenon of spectacle; he viewed the spectacle as destructive to the “welfare of a free and open society.”3 More generally, spectacle entertainments have been tied to power and success since their appearance in the ancient Roman Empire. These spectacles (ludi) took form as chariot races and gladiatorial battles, paid for by magistrates who set aside personal and state funds to garner popularity ultimately improving their success as politicians.4 In Latin, the word for spectacle is spectaculum, meaning “exposed to public view” or “certain events seen by a public.”5 Generally viewed as pejorative term, interpretations of spectacle carry varying levels of pessimism. In its most objective definition, a spectacle entertainment is a “human-made, multimedia event” resulting in the production of a “shared visual reality.”6 This visual reality might stray from the thing it seeks to represent, thereby influencing a community’s perception and effectively producing an alternate reality. The spectacle manufactures a society dependent on heightened, condensed, and therefore unrealistic experiences.7

In 1976, The British Museum curated a revolutionary exhibition for the jubilee anniversary of Pharaoh Tutankhamun’s tomb excavation called “Treasures of Tutankhamun” which combined the ideal of an ancient public spectacle with modern entertainment [Figure 1]. Its unprecedented popularity and profitability gave way to a new genre of museum exhibition: the blockbuster. Blockbuster exhibitions use popular subjects and visually rich experiences to achieve a desired reaction of wonder and awe from the viewers. In the “Treasures of Tutankhamun,” the complexity of Egyptian history is reduced to a selection of 50 fetishized objects from the Pharaoh’s tomb, meant to stand for the essence of the culture. Together, they provide a spectacle of historical authenticity for the viewer. By creating a microcosm of a larger macrocosm, this kind of blockbuster exhibition turns wonder and awe into a packaged leisure experience. Although the experience is predetermined, it is not to say that the viewer is robbed of his free will. By “fraternizing with” the spectacle, the viewer becomes part of the “passive, gullible” audience that modern entertainment assumes.8 It is the viewer that affords the spectacle its power.

Outside of the audience’s reaction, the spectacle has self-serving intentionality, furthering the power of capitalism. The spectacle is highly calculated for optimum results: maximal profit margins gained via impressed viewers that will garner membership fees and satisfied donors who will continue to financially support museum ventures. Because museums are financially dependent on donors, wealthy individuals, corporations, and charities, they must seek powerful funders to maintain their institution. Based on “resource dependency,” museums must appease funder preferences out of necessity to perpetuate future gifts.9 To illustrate, “Treasures of Tutankhamun” received financial backing from the British government as part of a larger movement to improve foreign relations between Britain and the Middle East. Sanctioning this political statement, the exhibition’s opening ceremony was lead by HRH Queen Elizabeth II.10 More recently, private ventures have produced new major spectacle exhibits outside of established museums and institutions that seek primarily to obtain profit.11 Because “commodities are now all there is to see,” art museums remain in competition with other forms of public entertainments, vying for viewers’ time and money: commodities in their own right.12 The spectacle remains as Debord theorized, a spectral presence of “monolithic power” operating outside of the visual experience.13


  1. Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle (New York: Zone Books, 1994), 3.
  2. Debord, 3
  3. Bettina Bergmann and Christine Kondoleon, The Art of Ancient Spectacle (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1999), 16.
  4. Richard C. Beacham, Spectacle Entertainments of Early Imperial Rome (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1999), 2.
  5. Bergmann and Kondoleon, 11.
  6. Ibid, 17.
  7. Debord, 16.
  8. Bergmann and Kondoleon, The Art of Ancient Spectacle, 11.
  9. Victoria D. Alexander, “Pictures at an Exhibition: Conflicting Pressures in Museums and the Display of Art.” American Journal of Sociology (Vol. 101, No. 4 (Jan., 1996), 799.
  10. “Treasures of Tutankhamun,” http://www.britishmuseum.org/whats_on/past_exhibitions/1972/archive_tutankhamun/tutankhamun_exhibition.aspx
  11. Jane Bedno and Ed Bedno, “Museum Exhibitions: Past Imperfect and Future Tense” Museum News: The American Association of Museums (1999), 8.
  12. Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, 29.
  13. Bergmann and Kondoleon, The Art of Ancient Spectacle, 16.