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Get up close to Egyptian tombs

Look, but don't touch.

Because starting today, and for only six weeks, the restored and reconfigured Egyptian tombs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art will be unveiled without the protective glass that has obscured their 4,000-year-old limestone carvings for the last nine decades. Scary icons to generations of city schoolchildren, the two tombs _ or "toons," as they were lovingly misdescribed in J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye _ have been sheathed in thick glass panels since shortly after they were opened to the public in 1910 and 1916.

The huge old glass sheets _ too heavy to be cleaned, covered with scratches, tinged green and prone to annoying reflections _ "distorted the colors in the reliefs," said Dorothea Arnold, the museum's curator of Egyptian art, describing the carved, painted limestone images in the offering chamber of the tomb of Perneb.

"It came to such a point that I was ashamed to come in here," she said.

New 11-foot-tall glass panels from Wernberg, Germany, cannot be installed until mid March. Thirteen of the panels will protect the tomb of Perneb and 10 the newly repositioned tomb of Raemkai.

Hinged for cleaning access, the nonreflective new glass panels, which are engineered to be "water white," reducing the greenish hue, are three-fourths of an inch thick and made of three laminated layers for strength.

And so, this construction-schedule hiccup offers a once-in-a-lifetime viewing opportunity. Quite literally, since few people could be alive who saw the tomb reliefs before the protective glass was hoisted into place.

The Perneb "is the most complete tomb outside of Egypt," said Arnold, who organized the multimillion-dollar reinstallation of the tombs and five galleries around them. The painted carvings are very rare, she said, gloriously depicting the rituals of libation and sustenance in the afterlife.

Describing the glassless limestone reliefs as unencumbered, museum director Philippe de Montebello said, "We honestly believe that people approach great things with a deferential attitude."