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Tutankhamun’s gold funeral mask, pre-breakage (photo by the Laird of Oldham/Flickr)

What would you do if you accidentally broke one of the world’s most valuable relics?

Glue it back together? Quickly? Before anyone noticed?

Well, yes, that might be what you would do, because you don’t work in a museum and you’re not a conservator. (Unless you do and are, in which case, sorry.) But someone who works in a museum would know better. Someone who works in a museum would take the relic to the conservation department, where people who are specifically trained to care for works of art and artifacts would figure out how to fix the damage … right?

Unfortunately, when faced with this exact situation, someone who works at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo opted for plan A — hasty gluing — and now the over-3,300-year-old gold funeral mask of the pharaoh Tutankhamun, which is pretty much the image representing Egyptian pharaohs and an entire ancient epoch in the Western popular imagination, sports a crusty-looking wedge of epoxy connecting its beard to its face.

The incident occurred last year but was only just reported today and, quite unsurprisingly, no one has been able to say who’s responsible. The AP story that broke the news is full of shadowy passive voice, an unidentified “he,” and conservators who’ll only speak on condition of anonymity. It’s not even clear “whether the beard was knocked off by accident while the mask’s case was being cleaned, or was removed because it was loose” — which seems, I dunno, like kind of an important distinction.

Oh, also: “Another museum conservator, who was present at the time of the repair, said that epoxy had dried on the face of the boy king’s mask and that a colleague used a spatula to remove it, leaving scratches.”

Wait, wait — a conservator was there when all this was going down?

I don’t know, folks, the curse of the pharaohs may yet prove real. Or maybe we’re just trying to find excuses for being idiot humans.

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Jillian Steinhauer

Jillian Steinhauer is a former senior editor of Hyperallergic. She writes largely about the intersection of art...

12 replies on “Someone Broke King Tut’s Mask and Glued It Back Together, Badly”

  1. i would expect this in the commercial art world, or at Sotheby’s where they try to hire art handlers at $15/hr, but not a museum. Wow!

  2. So disappointing. That would never happen at John Bluebottle Fine Art.
    They value and cherish fine art.

  3. There was an interesting interview yesterday on NPR with someone from the Cairo Museum, not sure which show but anyway….

  4. Not sure if the author has visited the museum but I’m not surprised to hear this. The Egyptian Museum itself is in terrible condition. Work is exposed to the elements via holes in the ceiling. There is damage from a fire or flood (not sure which) that happened years ago which has not been fixed. It is impossible to tell who actually is guarding the work vs. a museum patron because no one wears identification. One gets the impression that it is quite easy to access the work given the apparent lack of security. Sadly, it seems like there is little money to devote to the proper care of these priceless artifacts. I hope that the Egyptian Government will be able to figure something out. Despite all that, the museum is a treasure trove and is well worth visiting.

    1. I agree with Maria. The museum, at least post-Revolution during my visit, is in very poor condition and conservation seems almost unheard of, or at most an afterthought. Though the collection is astounding and well worth the visit, the non-existent curation, coupled with the lack of oversight and much needed preservation, is not only a disappointment, but depressing to see such priceless artifacts thrown about in an almost haphazard fashion.

  5. I was an art conservator and restorer. Many times, museums will conserve pieces so that you can see where the repair is located. It is not like restoration where you try to disguise the repair.

    It does seem shabbily done and it is troubling about the scratches when they removed the original adhesive.

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