SEVENTH IN A 10-PART SPECIAL SERIES: EGYPT, LAND OF ETERNAL REBIRTH
CAIRO – Back in 1902, Egypt opened the first purpose-built museum in the world, a massive two-story, 107-hall, 81,000-square-meter, Neoclassic structure that would eventually house more than 160,000 statues, monuments, mummies, sarcophagi, obelisks, shards, papyruses and other ancient artifacts spanning nearly 5,000 years of that country’s prehistoric and pharaonic history.
A major watershed in global museumology at the time, the stately Museum of Egyptian Antiquities (also known as the Egyptian Museum), conveniently located just across from Tahrir Square in the heart of downtown Cairo, quickly became a must-see stop for any serious visitor to the Land of the Nile.
A crown jewel in modern Egypt’s garland of touristic wonders, the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities was the undisputed venue of choice for displaying archeologist Howard Carter’s magnificent 1922 findings from inside the tomb of King Tutankhamun, the child New Kingdom pharaoh of the 18th dynasty.
But over the years, the once-regal Museum of Egyptian Antiquities began to lose its original luster as more and more artifacts were piled into its now-bursting halls in a seemingly haphazard manner and the original wood-framed glass showcases began to sag with age.
Recurring political conflicts and financial shortages also took their toll on the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, and by the 1980s, it had become an outdated relic of a bygone era.
Consequently, while other major museums around the globe have adapted chronologic and thematic presentations with detailed, multi-lingual explanations to help guide visitors through their collections, the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities has, unfortunately, come to resemble more a jumbled warehouse of ancient clutter than a national gallery of pharaonic treasures.
The few frayed signs and labels that do exist in the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities are mostly written in Latin on yellowed bits of parched paper and date back to the time of its opening, which means that modern-day visitors are generally left to muddle through the glorious artifacts with little guidance.
Worse yet, like the ancient tombs of the pharaohs, the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities has been the victim of numerous sackings and pillaging, with more than 50 pieces looted during the 2011 Egyptian revolution alone. (According to Egyptian government sources, about half of those items have since been recovered.)
And who could forget the misfortunate breakage (and subsequent super-gluing) of the beard on Tutankhamun’s funeral mask by clumsy curators in early 2015?
But at long last, the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities has decided to create a new home for not only the 4,500 items that Carter salvaged from Tutankhamun’s tomb, but also the majority of the other artifacts inside the Egyptian Museum.
With an unprecedented $1 billion budget and a team of more than 500 highly trained Egyptian archeologists, historians and restorationists working to transport, categorize and preserve the works from the museum at Tahrir, the Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM) will house the world’s most extensive collection of pharaonic art.
Now under construction on a plateau on the edge of Cairo overlooking the grand pyramids of Giza, the GEM will boast state-of-the-art technology and climate-controlled halls to protect the artifacts from further decay, and is tentatively slated for a partial opening in May 2018.
Recently, The News sat down with Tarek Sayed Tawfik, general director of the Grand Egyptian Museum project, to discuss the current stage of its development and its proposed role within Egyptian culture.
Could you please start with a brief overview of the museum project and tell us what the GEM will be like when it is open?
The Grand Museum project is one of Egypt’s most important projects under construction today. When completed, it will be the biggest museum in the world presenting a single civilization. There are other museums which will still be larger, such as the Louvre in Paris and the Metropolitan Museum in New York, but they showcase several civilizations. This museum will be starring only one civilization, the ancient Egyptian civilization.
How large will it be?
The entire site covers 490,000 square meters and we’ll have more than 50,000 square meters of display area.
Since the museum is scheduled to open in parts, what will be displayed in the first part of the museum?
The first part of the museum is scheduled to open in May 2018. That will be a major event because for the first time the complete treasures of King Tutankhamun will be on display — not only the 1,700 objects that are currently on display in the museum at Tahrir, but the entire 4,500 objects that were discovered inside the tomb. The Tutankhamun exhibit alone will extend over 7,000 square meters. The new museum will have a total of 100,000 objects, 50,000 objects on display and another 50,000 in accessible storage for scientists to be able to open and study. Stored objects will be used for temporary exhibitions as well.
Where are all these pieces right now? Are they all inside the Egyptian Museum?
Some of them are in the overcrowded Egyptian Museum at Tahrir. Many of them are coming from storehouses in different archaeological sites around Egypt. From the 50,000 objects that will be on display, 30,000 objects have never been on public display before.
The museum will really be in the fortunate position to be able to display fantastic new objects that have never before been seen by the general public. We are deliberately building the new museum with its own collection of new masterpieces so we will not be a repetition of the Tahrir museum.
Will the museum at Tahrir remain open or will it eventually be phased out?
It will remain open. That museum is now 113 years old. It has become an antiquity in itself. And in the collective memory of the world, the masterpieces there have been connected now to that place.
Remember, it is the oldest museum that was actually built to be a museum. Of the big museums abroad, most of them were first castles or other structures and then transformed into museums. That was the first building to be built as a museum.
I think both museums will have audiences. This museum, with the Tutankhamun collection, will be a special focal point. It will change the typical tourist routines and no doubt be included in most visits to the Giza pyramids. But the museum at Tahrir will also have its appeal and both museums will be offering their own attractions and ancient masterpieces.
You said that every single piece of the King Tutankhamun collection that is there right now will be transported here, along with other important artifacts. Won’t the simple logistics of transporting such large and fragile items pose a problem and possibly threaten their conservation?
It is challenging, but we have already safely transported 2,600 objects of King Tutankhamun, over 2,000 from the Egyptian Museum at Tahrir and another 600 from Luxor, where they were in the storehouses of the Luxor Museum. We have a special transportation staff which is very capable of packing the objects and transporting them to the Grand Egyptian Museum. We are using modern technology and expertise to protect each item.
How is the construction of the museum being financed?
The total cost will exceed $1 billion. So far, the Egyptian government has committed $300 million to the project and there has been a loan from Japan for the sum of another $300 million. We are working now on getting loans and grants for the remaining amount of money.
Overall, Egypt is shouldering this project on its own because even the loans will eventually be repaid by the Egyptian government. Egypt is building here the museum of the 21st century, just two kilometers away from the pyramids of Giza. In addition to the treasures it will house, the museum itself will be a fantastic architectural accomplishment so we predict that about 30 percent of the visitors in the first year will not only be coming to see the objects it will house, but will also be attracted to the new landmark that is being created here.
Is any of the museum open to the public at this time?
The museum itself is not, but the conservation and restoration center is open and in full operation. It was opened in 2010, and since that time we have already transported 27,500 pieces to the conservation laboratories. More than 14,000 objects have been treated, restored and made ready for display. We have 17 state-of-the-art restoration labs which are fully staffed by trained Egyptian personnel who are working to restore and conserve these pieces, including some of the objects of Tutankhamun. Currently, this restoration center is the largest in the world. Right now, we have 100 restoration experts working in it. We are trying hard to make it not only the largest, but also the best conservation center in the world.
Our labs are divided into organic and nonorganic and are differentiated by the types of materials that are restored inside. About 60 percent of the pieces in our collection are nonorganic. In one of our organic labs, for example, we are restoring papyrus scrolls. In another, we are restoring items of clothing, including some from King Tutankhamun which were found in his tomb and which have not been on display before because their condition was unstable. Now, we have stabilized their condition.
I had a bit of a discussion with my colleagues in the labs because the ancient Egyptians had a very nice technique of folding their clothes to put them inside the tomb, and our very eager colleagues wanted to unfold all of the materials we had. But I said, when there are several pieces which seem to be representing the same kind of clothing, we must leave most of them folded for future generations to open since there might be new techniques and technologies at that time.
We already have a good picture of what ancient Egyptian clothing was like at the time of Tutankhamen. Since the discovery of King Tutankhamen, of his tomb in 1922, what fantastic advances have occurred in the fields of technology and also in the fields of restoration. So we must make use of the technologies that are known to us in our time and leave some items for future generations.
When will the entire museum be open and could you please describe what it will look like in 2018 when the first part is open?
For the initial opening, there will be a grand staircase with a monumental entrance flanked by a 14-meter-high statue of King Ramesses II. He will be welcoming the visitors and then they will ascend the staircase, passing by monumental statues and architectural elements from ancient Egyptian temples to reach, at the end, a 28-meter-high glass façade overlooking the three pyramids of Giza. In this way, the pyramids will become the star inside the museum. As visitors turn right, they will enter the two big galleries of King Tutankhamun. This will all be included in the partial opening of the museum.
I estimate that by the year 2022, the rest of the museum should be open, adding another 35,000 square meters. This will be the chronological segment of the museum. It will include chronological galleries starting from Egyptian prehistory up to the Greco-Roman era, covering a period of 5,000 years. That section will explain the identifying theme of the museum, which is Kingship and Eternity.
Can you elaborate on that theme please?
The goal is to show the relationship between the people of Egypt and their king and their conception of kingship because these concepts played a major role in creating the objects that will be on display. We are also trying to provide an explanation of the objects and to put them in context within the religious background of the ancient Egyptians, as well as their social and political background. The idea is to allow visitors to better understand the fundamentals of ancient Egyptian culture in a much broader sense than most Egyptian collections currently do. Even overseas, most Egyptian collections are object-focused. This museum will be more thematically focused.
There will no doubt be a lot of fanfare and promotion for the 2018 opening of the museum. What kind of events will be held at the time?
I cannot even imagine it because it will be something that has never happened before and we are hoping to make it an event that will be really memorable, an event so important that anybody who misses it will feel that they have missed out on one the most important cultural events in their lifetime.
What role will this museum play in the international world in terms of the global preservation of antiquities?
I think with this museum, Egypt is really becoming a trendsetter, showing that at the time when there is again unrest in several parts of the world and antiquities are endangered and even, in some cases, deliberately destroyed, we are taking a stand to protect them. It is still important to build safe havens for the treasures of human patrimony. Of course, ancient Egyptian antiquities are an important part of human patrimony. This museum will be the bunker to protect the antiquities of Egypt and to show them in formative and innovative ways both for the Egyptian public and for our foreign guests.
You mentioned that only about half of the pieces will be on permeant display. Will you loan some of the other pieces to museums in other parts of the world?
Like any big museum in the world, the Grand Egyptian Museum aims to become a global player, which means that there will be collaborations with other museums to have exhibitions abroad and also to get pieces from abroad to Egypt. The Grand Egyptian Museum, for the first time, will have two big areas for temporary exhibitions and I’m hoping that we will start something that will be new to Egypt.
Normally, we were mainly exporting objects abroad for exhibitions, but now I would like to also import them, to present cultures that are not so well-known to the Egyptian public. For instance, in the future it would be interesting to have exhibitions from places like Mexico and other parts of Latin America. These are places which are connected in the minds of Egyptians in certain romantic and historical aspects, but the Egyptian people have rarely had the possibility to get in direct contact with these cultures.
We have had some exchange of exhibits with Mexico in the past, for example, but I think we would like to do this now on a grander scale because at the time when the world is again sadly drifting apart, culture and our common roots and heritage could be something that brings people from all around the world together.
The Grand Egyptian Museum, I hope, will become two main things: On the one hand, I would like it to be a focal point for cultures so that visitors who come here can mingle and create a dialogue with the Egyptians and with each other, and at the same time, since this museum will have large, landscaped gardens around it, I would like it also to become a major social meeting point for Egyptians themselves, a place for cultural exchange with the Grand Egyptian Museum in the heart of it.
Tarek Sayed Tawfik is the director general of the Grand Egyptian Museum project. After receiving his PhD in Egyptology from Bonn University in Germany, he started his academic career at the Faculty of Archaeology at Cairo University, where he became a lecturer in Egyptology and an associate professor.