How can the Mona Lisa compete with a copy made from toast?
I'm in Melbourne, along with half the world's funnymen and funnywomen and a few people passing themselves off as those things. We're all being outsold, though, by a ferocious opponent, in the form of a 3,300-year-old man. He has a five-star review from Melbourne's biggest newspaper and it's almost impossible to get a ticket. He doesn't do jokes and he's not even physically present at the show. It's hard to compete with a performer whose reputa-tion allows him to take such liberties with the paying public.
He is King Tutankhamun, and the riches of his tomb are on display in Melbourne for the first and only time before they return to their final resting place in Egypt. But I know a marketing ploy when I see one, and this sounds suspiciously like Tom Jones doing his "last ever tour" some time around 1986.
This past week I went to see my veteran - indeed, dead - rival in action. Sure enough, it took some effort to get in. The Melbourne Museum hasn't held back on the hype, describing it as "the greatest exhibition of all time": a slap in the face for the Great Exhibition, which must have thought it had something of a monopoly on the title.
The museum is chock full of Egyptian-flavoured merchandise, in case, after reverently examining the drinking-cups and immortality talismans of the boy king, your first thought is: "Well, what I need now is a pencil case." We lined up with hordes of ticket-buyers, having first posed for a complimentary photo that we could buy afterwards - very much like ancient Egypt. Then, we were let loose on the treasures of the tomb. It was the first time I've heard a teacher utter the phrase "Darren, don't bash the amulet".
The most remarkable thing about the exhibition's success is that the remains of King Tut aren't there. Though the show is cannily called "Tutankhamun", it might more accurately be called "Some Stuff We Found In a Tomb". This didn't deter anyone, but it did leave me wondering what would happen if audience members turned up to my show and found, instead of me in the flesh, a lot of my clothes and books scattered about the stage.
Still, it was quite an experience - almost enough to get me digging in my pockets for money to buy the CD of music "inspired by Egypt" in the gift shop afterwards. There's an undoubted thrill in seeing objects that not only have survived the test of time, but look so weirdly new, thanks to nobody troubling them for more than 3,000 years.
At the same time, there is a problem with witnessing wonders these days: you've almost certainly seen them before. Faced with a mummy (or any jaw-dropping artefact, for that matter), often your first emotion is not awe but the strange sensation that it looks a lot like the mummy in that film you saw. Your first thought on seeing the Sydney Opera House ought to be, "What a privilege to clap eyes on this world landmark," but more often it's likely to be: "This looks a lot like Steve's screen-saver at work." Some things end up seeming less impressive than their replicas. When you finally make it to the Mona Lisa, you are more than likely to think: "Is that it?" Its many reproductions, tributes and appearances in pop culture mean that the real, oddly small, invisible-behind-camera-flashes thing hanging on a wall in the Louvre is a near-certain disappointment. I once saw, at Niagara Falls, a Mona Lisa homage that some patient person had made from thousands of pieces of toast, grilled to slightly different colours. How can the real Mona Lisa compete with that?
What can we do to avoid famous-sights fatigue? Should we avoid all images of such things in order to save ourselves for the original? It's easier said than done - do you know how many Eiffel Tower keyrings there are in circulation? I'm in Sydney next week; am I meant to shut my eyes each time I see an Opera House mouse mat for sale?
Perhaps it's just a matter of mental adjustment. If we're so used to processing images of spectacular sights that we become blasé about them, we need to shock ourselves into connecting with them. Next time you're face to face with the riches of Tutankhamun, or some comparable marvel, try articulating the astounding facts. Try saying, "This object was made by people more than 3,000 years ago. For most of what we understand as human history, it has not been seen by a soul. Now I am privileged to set eyes on it." In fact, if you really want the museum to yourself, try saying it out loud in a thunderous tone. That'll stop Darren from messing about with that amulet. l
Next week: Nicholas Lezard