Friday, January 8, 2016

Short Story: Treasure House

The Museum of Islamic Art, damaged by a car bomb explosion in 2014, will once again light up Bab Al-Khalq in downtown Cairo, writes Nevine El-Aref

On Port Said Street in the Bab Al-Khalq neighbourhood of Cairo stands the lofty, honey-coloured edifice of the Museum of Islamic Art (MIA) with its neo-Mameluke architecture and luxurious façade hidden beneath iron scaffoldings and large green and gray sheets.

A car bomb in January 2014 at the adjacent Cairo Security Directorate rocked the capital and blew a six-metre crater into Port Said Street while also ripping into the façade of the two-storey MIA building whose second floor is shared with the National Library and Archives.

However, inside the institution the picture is totally different from what was the mess outside. Work is at full swing to complete restoration in time for a new opening. Workers are spread out everywhere inside the MIA’s exhibition halls fixing the lighting, erecting new showcases in the newly created galleries and placing artefacts in others. “I cannot give a specific day the museum will open but I can affirm that it is very soon,” Minister of Antiquities Mamdouh Eldamaty told Al-Ahram Weekly.

Eldamaty said the United Arab Emirates was working hard in collaboration with the Ministry of Antiquities to rescue the MIA and its priceless collection that reflects the glory of Islamic civilisation. He said the UAE was the first country to respond to the Egyptian campaign, launched shortly after the bombing, to finance the work and took responsibility for rehabilitating the inside of the museum.

“We are thankful to the UAE for its full support in bringing the museum back to its former glory in collaboration with Egyptian and foreign experts,” Eldamaty said, adding that UNESCO had contributed $100,000 while many countries, NGOs and the private sector provided additional support. The Italian government gave €800,000, the American Research Centre in Cairo will restore the museum’s façade, and the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History and the Metropolitan Museum in New York, Germany and Austria trained museum curators and restorers.

“Ninety per cent of the MIA restoration works have been completed,” Elham Salah, head of the Museum Section, told the Weekly.

Salah said the façade, building and halls had been restored and new state-of-the-art security and lighting systems were installed. All the mountings required to erect the large artefacts displayed out of showcases were replaced and new showcases were put in their display positions.

Now, Salah added, the collection is being rearranged the way it was with the exception of the souvenir hall, previously located at the centre of the museum, “which will now be relocated to another place at the end of the visitors’ path outside the museum”. A hall displaying Islamic coins and weapons was built as well as another hall for Islamic manuscripts. One hall exhibits the daily life of people down the Islamic ages, instruments and children’s toys.

“After the addition of these objects the MIA collection increased to 5,000 artefacts from 1,874 items,” Salah said, adding that among the items are 2,000 coins. “What remains are the final touches,” MIA General Director Ahmed Al-Shoki said, such as the iron shades on the façade’s windows as well as a polish and retouches of a few walls.

Al-Shoki said 90 per cent of the showcases had been erected and that the curators were currently putting the treasured MIA collection inside them. Al-Shoki said the original plan was to re-display the MIA collection according to its previous exhibition scenario but that a few changes had to be made in order to introduce a new display concept to MIA visitors.

Before the changes, Al-Shoki told the Weekly that a study had been carried out by the museum’s curators and restorers to see what was amiss in the MIA’s original exhibition. The gift shop has been relocated to the MIA museological garden outside the museum halls. In its place has come a hall for Islamic weapons and coins.

All open showcases have been closed, he said, to prevent dust affecting the artefacts. A collection of 14 new showcases has been installed and a new display concept designed for the museum’s entrance hall to reflect the contribution of Islamic civilisation.

The entrance hall now has five showcases, Al-Shoki explains, displaying objects reflecting the main elements that made up the birth of Islamic civilisation.

In the middle is a showcase displaying a huge book of the Holy Qur’an from the Omayyad period and near it, the oldest key of Al-Kaaba from Al-Ashraf Shaaban’s tenure representing the pilgrimage. The remaining three items are lamps decorated with Kufic writing representing Arabic literature, a pot from Iran to show the contribution of non-Arab countries in Islamic civilisation, and an astrolabe showing scientific Arab development. A wooden door decorated with foliage and geometric elements is also among the objects on display at the entrance.

“Artefacts that were damaged in the explosion and restored are also put on display within the collection but are distinguishable from the other objects by a golden label placed beside them,” Al-Shoki said.

He said the blast had damaged 179 pieces; 90 were completely restored while 10, all carved in glass, are beyond repair. Among the most important were a rare decorated Ayyubid jar and an Omayyad plate carved in porcelain.

A three-month exhibition for damaged and restored objects will be held at the opening of the MIA, with written narratives showing the efforts being exerted to return the objects back to their original look and the restoration carried out to return MIA to life....... Read More.

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