Thursday, December 24, 2015

Short Story: Museum reclaims its Nile view

From Boulaq to its current location in Tahrir Square, the Egyptian Museum has a remarkable story to tell, writes Nevine El-Aref.
The Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square, with its burnt-orange, neo-classical façade, has stood out as one of the city’s most famous landmarks since its construction in 1902. It is home to 150,000 of the nation’s most important artefacts, from a long and unique span of Egypt’s history.

Now, after more than five decades hidden behind the multi-storeyed headquarters of the once-ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), gutted during the 25 January Revolution of 2011, the Egyptian Museum is to overlook the Nile again.

The roar of bulldozers joins the customary noise of Tahrir Square in the heart of downtown Cairo. The blackened headquarters of the now-defunct NDP, which stands between the museum and the Nile, is being demolished and its land returned to its original owner, the Ministry of Antiquities.

The land on which the NDP headquarters was built was originally used as a dock for cargo vessels transporting antiquities down the river from Luxor, Aswan and elsewhere in Upper Egypt to the museum for restoration or display.

In 1887, a welcoming ceremony was held at the dock for the arrival of the royal mummies, recovered by the then-antiquities director Gaston Maspero from a secret cache in Luxor, where they had been hidden by priests during the New Kingdom.

Museum designer Marcel Dourgnon had constructed the gate of the museum further from the Nile River not only to enable construction of the port but also to avoid the kind of building errors that had occurred at the Boulaq Museum, which had suffered significant damage when the Nile flooded in 1878.

Maps drawn up in 1911 and 1926 show a bookshop and cafeteria on the land, while to the west of the site stood the museum’s workshops and storehouses.

The dock continued to welcome the museum’s visitors from the banks of the Nile until the 1952 Revolution, when the land was sequestrated by the government from the Egyptian Antiquities Authority, now the Ministry of Antiquities, and used by various departments of the regime.

The last tenant was the NDP, which shared the large Nile-side premises with the National Council for Women, various national agencies and the Arab Bank.

On the evening of 28 January 2011, the building was gutted by fire in the midst of fierce fighting between security forces, demonstrators and thugs during demonstrations in Tahrir Square.

On the same day, the Egyptian Museum itself was partly looted despite attempts to protect it by protesters who formed a human chain around the site. Thieves raided the museum’s shop for jewellery, smashed display cases, and ransacked the ticket office.

Protesters succeeded in capturing a number of people who had broken into the museum, confiscating stolen artefacts and handing them over to the police. Some of the stolen objects were recovered within days of their robbery.

A statue of King Akhenaten was discovered amid garbage close to Tahrir Square and a number of other artefacts, including part of a broken wooden sarcophagus, were found lying on the ground to the east of the museum. Other collections, including an ancient Egyptian flute and gilded statuette of King Tutankhamun were found in a bag at the Tahrir metro station.

In March, a final report was issued stating that 54 artefacts were still missing. Copies of the list were submitted to both Interpol and the International Council of Museums.
Meantime, former minister of antiquities Mohamed Ibrahim described the burned-out NDP building as “a time bomb and a real threat to the museum and its priceless collection.”

The former NDP headquarters was considered unsafe and could collapse at any time. In early October 2015, a ministerial decree was issued ordering the demolition of the abandoned NDP building. The job was given to the Engineering Department of the Armed Forces.

When the demolition is complete, says Minister of Antiquities Mamdouh Eldamaty, the area will be converted into an open-air museum and showcase some of the museum’s collections, now short of space in the main building. A hall for temporary exhibitions will be built in a bid to attract more visitors to the museum.

Part of the land will be turned into a garden, similar to the one built by Pharaoh Amenhotep III at the Karnak Temple in Luxor. This could be planted with papyri and lotus flowers, Eldamaty said, and a collection of ancient Egyptian artefacts exhibited in it.

A source from the Egyptian Museum, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that providing a buffer zone around the museum, instead of having it situated right next to another building, was important for security.

Elham Salah, head of the Museums Section at the Ministry of Culture, told Al-Ahram Weekly that the museum will undergo “minor development.” This includes the upgrading of its indoor lighting system and refurbishment of its showcases, as well as improving the displays in some of the museum’s exhibition halls.

A long-term development plan for the museum was launched in 2012. “The Revival of the Egyptian Museum” was dedicated to defining the future role of the museum within the local and international museum landscape and giving it the prominence it has long deserved.

The initiative aimed at studying the museum’s existing situation and developing a practical plan for its full rehabilitation. It was funded by Germany’s Foreign Office and the Centre for International Migration and Development and executed by Environmental Quality International (EQI), an internationally acclaimed investment and consulting firm that specialises in natural and cultural heritage conservation and sustainable development.

Together, the Ministry of Antiquities and a high-calibre team of local and international architects, engineers, conservators, Egyptologists, environmentalists and botanists worked closely to launch the revival.

The initiative was made possible by an exemplary public and private partnership, engaging members of the business community, research institutions and scholars, both locally and internationally.

Eldamaty told the Weekly that the museum, as it stands today, appears to have undergone significant modification over the past decades, most of which have harmed the overall homogeny of the building and its architecture.

The revival’s aim is to address the pressing physical needs of the museum and to ensure that appropriate steps are taken to present the museum as it was originally intended to be seen, so that it remains a reference destination for both national and international visitors.... Read More

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