Saturday, May 30, 2015

The future of the past

Almost at the end of his first year in office, Minister of Antiquities Mamdouh El-Damaty tells Nevine El-Aref about the challenges ahead.

When Minister of Antiquities Mamdouh Eldamaty began his tenure in Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb’s second cabinet last June, the country’s archaeologists and heritage professionals were encouraged. They felt that his track record would allow him to manage Egypt’s antiquities portfolio efficiently, being familiar with the ministry’s different sections and its many hidden doors. They also thought Eldamaty’s relative youth would stand him in good stead.

Over the ten months since his appointment, Eldamaty’s mission has been to embody a new vision and carry out an action plan to properly preserve the country’s antiquities, upgrade the skills of ministry staff and work to resume archaeological projects that are now on hold.

However, his management style has not pleased everyone, and there have been campaigns both against the minister and against the ministry’s stewardship of the country’s antiquities.

An Italian archaeologist recently claimed that the famous ancient Egyptian painting of the Meidum Geese, on display in the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square, was a fake. He claimed that the painting’s discoverer had painted over a real Pyramid Age painting. There have also been claims that the treasure of Tutankhamun has been mistreated.

The Weekly met with Eldamaty at his office in Zamalek to talk about his achievements and future plans.

Why has a campaign against the Ministry of Antiquities and Egypt’s heritage been taking place?

The campaign is not against the Ministry of Antiquities and Egypt’s heritage. On the contrary, it is a systematic campaign against the country as a whole. The Ministry of Antiquities is just the scapegoat. Several incorrect news stories about the country’s antiquities have been published in the media, while other stories have been stopped and positive news not published.

For example, the return of 123 ancient Egyptian artefacts from the United States was not highlighted in the newspapers, and nor were the discoveries made at Tapozires Magna on the north coast between Alexandria and Marsa Matrouh. These discoveries were made by the first Egyptian-Dominican archaeological mission, which unearthed a collection of noblemen’s tombs from the Roman Empire and a stele similar to the Rosetta Stone dating to the 21st year of Ptolemy IV’s reign. The stele is engraved with hieroglyphics and demotic texts, but the Greek text is missing.

But instead of reporting this, the media reported the robbery of the Mostafa Kamil archaeological storehouse, and when the stolen artefacts were returned and the criminals caught and put in jail the media did not give enough attention to this. The claims of forgery made against the Meidum Geese painting are unfounded and are not based on proper scientific studies. They depend on claims by an Italian archaeologist who in my opinion made these unfounded claims in order to draw attention to himself…

Why is the restoration work at the Graeco-Roman Museum in Alexandria in limbo when an agreement has been signed between the ministry and the Italian government to speed up the work?

After almost ten years of being off limits to tourists, the Graeco-Roman Museum will soon once again be restored to its former glory and provide more facilities for visitors. This is thanks to the Italian government, which has provided the funds to rehabilitate the museum within the framework of a memorandum of understanding signed with Egypt in 2008 to strengthen ties of friendship, cultural and scientific cooperation, and the protection of cultural heritage between Italy and Egypt.

The work at the museum stopped as a result of the 25 January Revolution, but it restarted just last week. An agreement with Alexandria Governor Hani Al-Messeri has also been signed to grant the land behind the museum to the Ministry of Antiquities. This will be used as an extension of the museum to enlarge its display area and maybe also to build a new entrance.

The funds required for the restoration amount to LE10 million. The work is to be carried out over the coming 18 months, including the restoration of the building itself, replacement of the showcases, installation of new lighting, ventilation and security systems, and renewal of the overall display.

The façade of the museum is to be kept as it is, and the changes will be made inside the building only. A conservation laboratory, children’s facilities, a lecture hall, cafeteria and bookstore are planned. Under the new plans, the museum will include halls for the display of its permanent collection, a section dedicated to archaeological study and research, and a special museum for children. Italian architects will also use state-of-the-art techniques to make the museum more environmentally friendly.

The museological project is divided into three key parts: the main hall, the exhibition sections and the “multimedia isle”. The main hall will be dedicated to artefacts related to the main theme of the museum, which is the city of Alexandria. Within this section there will also be a “multimedia isle” conceived as a space for voices and images that will start with the descriptions of the city found within the writings of ancient authors, first and foremost in the Geography of Strabo, and will include a reconstruction of the ancient city and a kaleidoscopic narrative of voices and images of the monumental ruins of the city and its monuments.You Can Read All Meeting Points Here. 

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