British archaeologist Howard Carter unearthed King Tut's tomb in 1922.
The New York Times/Wikimedia Commons British archaeologist Howard Carter unearthed King Tut's tomb in 1922.

Ninety-two years after British archaeologist Howard Carter discovered King Tut’s tomb, a team of specialists, headed by the Spanish restorers Factum Arte, is recreating the Egyptian pharoah’s burial chamber as it was when it was unearthed in 1922. The facsimile will, unlike your average Disney ride or museum diorama, be located in the actual Valley of the Kings, near the location of the real tomb but will be—like those two former examples of ersatz places—the centerpiece of an educational effort intended to help visitors understand the tomb and the significance of its discovery.

A replica of King Tut's coffin
T-Bet/Flickr A replica of King Tut's coffin

I have not been to the Valley of the Kings, but I have seen Factum Arte’s most notable prior achievement, the installation of Veronese’s The Wedding at Cana in the monastery of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice. That piece was and is war booty, held by the French in the Louvre for the enjoyment of its citizens and visitors. The monastery now has a copy that is so accurate and so carefully framed that you get the full sense of the importance and beauty of this vast canvas in the Renaissance space for which Veronese painted it.

Is Factum Arte’s work all that different than those more anonymous duplicators who have replaced Michelangelo’s “David” or St. Mark’s bronze lions with facsimiles so that the originals will be safe from all the pollution they endure? And how do they differ from those dioramas we have enjoyed for so many decades?

I think the answer is space and place. Unlike those dioramas, the tomb replica and the Veronese copies both exist in the actual place where the original exists. Unlike the dioramas, the originals are spatial constructs that surround us. They go beyond virtual reality to make us believe that a certain space has the qualities of another.

That last point is also important. Artist Stan Douglas just revealed an artwork that lets you enter into a virtual facsimile of a Seattle neighborhood in 1948 (you can also get a more removed experience on the app). There are other artists and architects working on using such simple technologies as Kinect, in combination with high-definition projection, to create life-like, though essentially lifeless environments. The tomb is not that. It is a real place that acts as almost as a palimpsest thrown over reality.

All this makes it clear that we are going to have rethink our belief in the value of the original. If you can make something exactly the same as the original work, but can also place it in an environment that frames that facsimile within the spatial boundaries (the “sense of place,” or belonging, if you will), is its effect not the same as the original?

China and Japan are two countries that have almost always been less concerned with the fact of the original spatial artwork, and more with its qualities, by rebuilding their temples periodically. They seem none the worse for it to me.

And yet something is lost. After I saw the Wedding at Cana reproduction in Venice, I made it a point to see the original when I was in Paris a few months later. I am more than willing to admit that it might have been cultural conditioning, but I felt that the real painting itself had a completely different quality. Its space and texture were both more and less intense, depending on where you looked. There was also a sense of grit that gave the work a certain aura.

It was that same aura that I felt the restoration of Mies van der Rohe’s Tugendhat House had removed when I visited there last year. I am sure that I will feel the same way if I ever get to the Valley of the Kings, which leads me to one more consideration: The original creators of King Tut’s tomb designed it so as not to be seen by anybody but those in the afterlife. Our viewing of it changed its situation as well as its reality, and now we are doing so again. We make places within both a physical and a cultural context, and with the available technology and aesthetics. We have to accept that our current conditions alter and remake these works, even if they are original. The inauthenticity is in the mode of viewing itself, not in the facsimile—all viewing is art.

Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.

Photos used with permission via Creative Commons licenses with Flickr user t-bet.