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A dream comes true
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 15 - 09 - 2014

Among the first decisions made by Minister of Antiquities Mamdouh Eldamaty, after he took up his post in late June, was the appointment of Tarek Tawfik to head the planned Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM) overlooking the Giza Plateau.
After receiving his PhD in Egyptology from Bonn University in Germany, Tawfik started his academic career at the Faculty of Archaeology at Cairo University, where he became a lecturer in Egyptology and then an associate professor. He was the official spokesman of the founding committee of the Syndicate of Egyptology in Egypt and has lectured in Germany, France, Great Britain, Switzerland, Italy and Malta.
He is also a member of various regional and international archaeological and Egyptological academies.
The appointment did not please everyone, however, including some ministry employees who felt that the appointment should have been made internally. “The ministry has many qualified individuals, and there was no need to make an external appointment,” said one ministry archaeologist speaking on condition of anonymity.
From his modern office overlooking the Giza Plateau, where the GEM is soon to see the light of day, Tawfik welcomed the Weekly's questions with a broad smile. The walls were empty aside from bookshelves and books, and the room as a whole was simply furnished with chairs, tables and a large desk covered with documents.
Tawfik admitted that he has been given a difficult task as the GEM's first director, given the ministry's budgetary concerns and problems regarding the realisation of the ambitious architectural design.
“When I was asked by the minister to direct the GEM I was surprised,” Tawfik said, adding that the unexpected position is also a great responsibility. “I have concerns of course,” he said, noting the obstacles facing this gigantic project. “But I did not hesitate in accepting the job, which is a great challenge. I am very enthusiastic because the appointment shows Eldamaty's confidence in me and it will be a chance for me to leave a mark on this new institution.”
One initial challenge will be transporting the Tutankhamun collection from the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square to the GEM, something that should be carried out, Tawfik said, with international assistance. “I am already concerned about the safety of the materials during their transportation,” he said.
Tawfik describes the GEM as Egypt's fourth pyramid, after the three pyramids at Giza. When completed, it will be one of the world's largest museums and a major cultural, historical, and educational institution.
Visitors to the museum will discover galleries covering 92,000 square metres, equal to six football stadiums. The institution's educational centre will offer scientific programmes to raise the cultural and archaeological awareness of Egyptian young people and other visitors, while the exhibitions will help them learn about Egypt's history and topography.
The GEM will also contribute to its immediate environment, Tawfik said, explaining that when the museum is inaugurated hotels, resorts and other services will soon follow, developing the surrounding area. According to feasibility studies, some five million visitors are expected each year. “This will increase the living standards in the area, as well as offering job opportunities,” Tawfik said, pointing out that the GEM is located at the intersection of the Giza, Al-Haram, Six October and Hadaek Al-Ahram areas.
“Because of the GEM's unique character we need to develop special administrative and operational systems to properly manage the institution,” Tawfik said. “We cannot simply import ready-made administrative systems, though we can invite international professionals to help us develop our own.”
The GEM is being sponsored by UNESCO, the UN's cultural body, which has the task of ensuring that the new institution conforms to international guidelines. “However, the GEM is not like the new National Museum for Egyptian Civilisation (NMEC) that is under the direct supervision of UNESCO,” Tawfik said. The International Council of Museums (ICOM) is also involved in the work on the GEM, helping to ensure that displays and other aspects of the museum meet the highest international standards.
A delegation from UNESCO, ICOM and the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM) recently visited the GEM to inspect the work and suggest solutions to the problems that have delayed its completion, Tawfik said. During their visit, delegation members praised the work and Egypt's efforts to preserve its cultural heritage.
The delegation was enthusiastic about the GEM's laboratories and state-of-the-art equipment, these having been successfully completed despite the budgetary issues the ministry has faced. The delegation also promised that every effort will be made to activate various forms of collaboration, including training Egyptian curators.
Before starting his new job, Tawfik reviewed the work already completed on the GEM, discovering that the restoration labs and storehouses had been successfully completed and staff trained in collaboration with Japanese experts. However, the fall in tourism after the 25 January Revolution interfered with the construction schedule and work came to a halt.
In 2012, work resumed after a joint venture between Egypt's Orascom Construction Industries and the Belgium BESIX Group was awarded the contract for completion of the GEM's third phase, which includes construction of the museum's main building and landscaping. BESIX is the company that built the impressive Borg Khalifa tower in Dubai.
Today, Tawfik said, the work is continuing, if more slowly than originally anticipated, and very good results have been achieved. “A third of the construction work has been completed,” he said, adding that the main walls have been built and the challenge now is the ceiling. The design presented formidable technical challenges to the engineers working on the project.
“If the required funds are provided, the whole building will be completed at the beginning of 2017,” Tawfik said. Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehlab formed a special committee to help raise the necessary funds, and negotiations are underway with the JICA, the Japanese development agency, to obtain another soft loan similar to a previous loan that was used for the earlier construction work.
Other ideas include a campaign entitled “One dollar per night” under which the Ministry of Antiquities would collect one dollar for every night a tourist spends in any hotel in Egypt, the money going towards funding the GEM. “This dollar would be an optional fee,” Tawfik said.
There are also proposals to make the best possible use of GEM facilities on a regional level, providing an additional source of funds. The museum's restoration labs could be made into a regional expert centre, for example, and help to support the heritage needs of the entire Middle East.
The success of the subscription scheme for the Suez Canal has also encouraged Tawfik to launch a similar campaign to support the GEM's construction. Negotiations are also under way with banks in Egypt. The Suez Canal Authority has also offered money to support the work.
“Work at the GEM up to now has cost half a billion dollars, and an equal amount is needed to make the dream of the new institution come true,” Tawfik said. He added that the planned exhibition design of the museum will not be changed, but will be reviewed by Egyptian experts. “If changes are required to make the exhibition design more attractive to visitors, then these will be carefully studied,” Tawfik said.
The British company in charge of the design, which withdrew because of budgetary issues, will be replaced by a new company, he said.
He added that rumours that the replica of the tomb of Tutankhamun erected beside archaeologist Howard Carter's rest house on the west bank at Luxor will be dismantled and re-erected inside the museum are unfounded.
The GEM will display authentic objects, not replicas, he said. However, brainstorming is under way on how to exhibit the Tutankhamun collection, in particular, in the best and most stimulating way. “It is too early to confirm anything as final decisions have not yet been taken,” he said.
However, the statue of Pharaoh Ramses II, moved from central Cairo some years ago, will be kept in storage in the GEM until construction work is completed, he said. It will then be transferred to the building's main entrance, he added.
Up to now, only some 12,000 pieces from the 100,000 planned for the museum's collection have been transferred to the GEM. “When I took up the post of director, I found that the different departments of the museum were working on isolated islands and problems had developed as a result. However, these have now been resolved and there is a new atmosphere in the institution,” he said.
Work to transport the GEM's collection from the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square will begin this week. Tawfik said that this was the case because it is necessary to have sufficient time to restore the objects and prepare them for display. The exact date of the museum's inauguration had not been decided, he said, though this was likely to take place in phases. The first phase will be in 2017, after the completion of the construction work, and the second is likely to take place in 2019.
“The important thing now is to create an efficient team of GEM curators. Comprehensive training courses are therefore continuing. It is also important to raise the international profile of the GEM, and so we are doing everything possible to promote the museum internationally,” Tawfik said. Offers of international aid had been flooding in, he added, whether financial, technical, or in terms of training.
Finally, Tawfik said he wants to see the government take action to complete the planned fourth line of the metro, with a new station to be located in front of the museum. The Giza governorate should also widen the road leading to the museum.
Tawfik says that the metro should also be extended to the NMEC, in nearby Fustat. “If this was done, tourists could visit the Giza pyramids, the GEM and the NMEC in one trip by metro,” he said.
Origins of the project
When the Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM) project was launched in 2002, the idea was to build a state-of-the-art antiquities museum near the Giza pyramids to solve the problems of the overstuffed Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square, and to bring together materials stored at various archaeological sites.
The museum is meant to provide the best environment for the display of Egypt's priceless treasures, as well as providing more space, better lighting, and more information on them, all of which will help to do justice to Egypt's heritage.
The museum complex will centre on what has been called the “Dunnal Eye,” an area containing the main exhibition spaces. From this central hub a network of streets, piazzas and bridges will link the museum's many sections. The design is by Shih-Fu Peng of the Dublin architectural firm Heneghan, winner of the international architectural competition held in 2003. According to Peng, the museum, partly ringed by a desert wall containing half a million semi-precious stones, will act as a link between modern Cairo and the ancient pyramids.
The GEM is to display a collection of 100,000 objects from ancient Egypt, beginning with prehistory and going up to the early Roman period. Among the objects on display will be the unique objects of the boy king Tutankhamun; Hetepheres, mother of the pharaoh Khufu; Yuya and Thuya, the grandfathers of pharaoh Akhenaten; Senedjem, the principal artist of the pharaoh Ramses II; and the royal mummies and treasures of Tanis. Funerary objects of Mekete-Re, a high-ranking official of the 11th Dynasty, will also be among the items.
The gigantic statue of Ramses II, transported to the museum in 2006 from Ramses Square in downtown Cairo, and the two solar boats of Khufu transported from the Giza Plateau are also among the exhibits.
The GEM will house a conference centre with an auditorium seating 1,000 and catering to theatrical performances, concerts, conferences and business meetings. The main auditorium will be supplemented with seminar rooms, meeting rooms, a multi-purpose hall suitable for a variety of events, and an open-plan gallery for accompanying exhibitions.
A 7,000-square-metre commercial area with retail shops, cafeterias, restaurants, leisure and recreational activities is planned for the ground-floor level, as well as a 250-seat cinema.
The first and second phases of the GEM were completed in 2010. They included construction of a power plant, fire station, and fully equipped conservation centre built 10 metres below ground level. The centre has 12 laboratories and four storage galleries. It is believed to be the largest such facility in the world and is intended as a regional, as well as Egyptian, expert centre.
The museum's storage rooms are equipped with units designed for secure storage and easy access. The environment is determined by the materials kept in the individual rooms, whether they are organic or non-organic, or require low temperatures to optimise preservation.
The LE5 billion project is 65 per cent funded by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), which has provided a US$300 million soft loan to be repaid over 30 years at an interest rate of 1.5 per cent. Payments will be made in instalments after a 10-year grace period following the GEM's official opening.
Another $27 million has been donated by Egyptian businessmen, while the Ministry of Culture under the former Mubarak regime provided $150 million. However, problems encountered after the 25 January Revolution led to budgetary problems, slowing the construction.
In 2012, a joint venture between Egypt's Orascom Construction Industries (OCI) and the Belgian BESIX Group was awarded the contract for completion of the GEM's third phase, which includes construction of the museum's main building and landscaping.

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