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Happy birthday to the Egyptian Museum
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 15 - 11 - 2018

The neo-classical Egyptian Museum in Cairo's Tahrir Square was buzzing with people on Monday, as the Ministry of Antiquities celebrated the Downtown landmark's 116th birthday.
To the strains of classical music mixed with smooth ancient Egyptian beats and the heavenly tunes of the harp, ministers, dignitaries, government officials, foreign ambassadors and cultural counsellors to Egypt, as well as MPs and media representatives, flocked to the museum to attend the event.
More than 100 years ago the khedive Abbas Helmi II, watched by princes and high-ranking government officials, cut the ribbon at the museum's opening. This was Egypt's treasure house and a shrine to its past.
During that period and since emperors and empresses, kings and queens, presidents, scholars and thousands upon thousands of tourists have visited the Egyptian Museum and gazed in awe on the marvellous works of art that fill every niche and cranny.
As the country pays homage to all who shared in its construction on its 116th birthday, the Ministry of Antiquities in collaboration with Orascom Investment Holding (OIH), which sponsored the event in accordance with the newly launched commercial sponsorship regulations, held a grand celebration this week.
“The Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square was the first building in the early 20th century to be built as a museum and not a palace converted into a museum as was more common at that time,” Minister of Antiquities Khaled El-Enany told Al-Ahram Weekly.
Yuya's gilded sarcophagus and his mummy
He described the museum as “one of the greatest in the world, and its anniversary is a clear indication that it is a living museum, going from 1902 to 2017 and moving into the future.”
He said that a development plan for the museum had been launched to define its future role within the local and international museum landscape, giving it the prominence it deserves.
“The museum is not only one of Egypt's landmarks, but also one of the country's most distinguished monuments as well,” El-Enany said. He added that the museum would not be closed after the completion of the Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM) on the Giza Plateau, as some have claimed, but would be developed and some of its artefacts put on special display.
These include the collection of Yuya and Thuya, the grandparents of the monotheistic king Akhenaten, which are on show in a new display for the museum's 116th anniversary, and the royal treasures of Tanis, which will replace the Tutankhamun treasures when these are moved to the GEM.
Other treasures will be taken out of storerooms to be shown for the first time, El-Enany said.
The Egyptian Museum houses a collection of 160,000 artefacts, only 50,000 of which are on display. “After the transportation of artefacts to the GEM and the National Museum of Egyptian Civilisation [NMEC] in Fustat, the museum in Tahir Square has the opportunity to excavate its store galleries and uncover more distinguished objects to put on display,” El-Enany said, adding that the Yuya papyrus was one of these artefacts that had been hidden in the basement since its discovery in the Yuya and Thuya tomb in 1905.
It is the longest papyrus ever to be displayed in Egypt, as its length extends to almost 20 metres. It is also in a good state of conservation.
Thuya and Yuya's funerary masks
DEVELOPING THE MUSEUM: The renovation of the museum to celebrate its 116th birthday has reached its internal halls, returning them to their original glory by painting the walls and covering the floors with tiles in the original colours and patterns.
The museum's internal walls have been painted light green, El-Enany said, while the floor tiles, designed to look like soft limestone, are decorated with particular patterns. The glass of the windows in the museum's ceiling have been changed to filter out UV rays to prevent radiation from the sun reaching the artefacts.
“Work will continue as the museum has been awarded funding from the European Union to continue the development work in collaboration with five main European museums, Turin in Italy, the Louvre in Paris, the British Museum in London, the Egyptian Museum in Berlin, and the Rijksmuseum Van Oudheden in Germany,” El-Enany said.
The highlight of the new display coinciding with the museum's 116th anniversary is the redesign of Yuya and Thuya's collection on the museum's upper floor. These were two Egyptian nobles and the grandparents of the monotheistic Pharaoh Akhenaten. Their daughter was queen Tiye, wife of Amenhotep III, mother of Akhenaten and the grandmother of the golden boy-king Tutankhamun.
They became well-known in 1905 when their tomb was uncovered in the Valley of the Kings filled with a distinguished funerary collection. Although the tomb had been robbed in antiquity, it had protected many priceless artefacts.
The Yuya and Thuya collection was put on show on the museum's second floor but in a less-visited area. As part of the new development scheme that aims to restore the Egyptian Museum to its original grandeur after the removal of the Tutankhamun collection to the GEM, the Yuya and Thuya treasures are being put on display in a larger hall in the foyer of the second floor.
The collection includes the anthropoid gilded coffins of both couples, a box coffin, mummy bands, gilded masks, amulets, scarabs, canopic jars, beds, ushabti figurines, magical statues, golden chairs, wigs and baskets, mirrors, kohl tubes and containers, mats, sandals, staves, pottery and stone vessels, jars with embalming products, boxes, jewellery boxes decorated with ivory, faience, and ebony inscribed with golden letters.
One of the most impressive artefacts is a chariot. Although this does not have any decoration, it is beautiful in its simplicity, with spirals and rosettes in gilded plaster.
The mummies of Yuya and Thuya were also found inside the tomb in a very good conservation condition due to the high quality of the embalming materials used. It also housed the internal and external coffins and the funerary masks made of the gilded cartonnage decorated with coloured glass and precious stones.
“These are not the only treasures,” Moemen Osman, director of the Restoration Department at the Egyptian Museum, told the Weekly. He said that the tomb had also contained the longest papyrus to be displayed in Egypt, known as the Papyrus of Yuya.
Upon its discovery the papyrus was divided into 34 segments in order to be stored. It was then kept in the basement of the museum until a few months ago when Egyptian restorers started its rescue and conservation project.
Before starting the work, asserted Osman, the papyrus was archaeologically inspected and documented in order to find the best methods for its restoration.
He said that the papyrus was inscribed with chapters from the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead and other ancient Egyptian spells in beautiful colours. Its length is about 20 metres, and it was recently re-assembled for the first time by Egyptian conservators at the museum.
Guests gathered at the museum to celebrate its 116th birthday
RELATION TO THE GEM: Elham Salah, head of the Museums Sector at the ministry, told the Weekly that this was a temporary display and part of the redesign scheme for the whole museum after the removal of the Tutankhamun collection to the GEM and other artefacts to the NMEC.
She explained that the displays of the museum would be changed to suit the new collection and at the same time would preserve its original identity. A new lighting system would be installed, and a complete renovation would be carried out to give the museum back its original appearance. The walls will be repainted in their original colours and the ornamentation renewed.
The first phase of the revival project of the museum started in 2014 and was implemented in four halls in the east wing of the Tutankhamun Gallery and on the second floor with German funding. New facilities were provided, modifying the layout and aspect of the museum gardens from the original plans. Physical changes were also made to the building, with work now focusing on the first floor.
Salah explained that among the collections that would be put on better display in the museum was the Tanis jewellery treasure of the 20th and 21st dynasties and some artefacts from the basement would also be put on show.
The new displays will not only depend on putting artefacts in spacious areas within the building, since information boards will also be installed including details of where objects were found and the restoration work carried out. The order of the artefacts exhibited on the first floor will be changed to follow a chronological order from prehistoric times through to the Graeco-Roman period.
In collaboration with UNESCO, signboards have been fabricated and installed in the garden of the museum at the entrance gates as part of the first phase of the development project. These signs include general guidance and useful information to visitors.
A special exhibition highlighting the Egyptian Museum and the story behind its construction is on show in the museum's foyer.
El-Enany and his fellow ministers at the museum
Sabah Abdel-Razek, director-general of the museum, said the exhibition was divided into three sections. The first is a documentary exhibition showing the museum's original blueprints designed by French architect Marcel Durvein as well as photographs featuring Abbas Helmi II, Egypt's khedive at the time, placing the building's foundation stone in the presence of princes and high-ranking officials.
Photographs showing the different stages of the building's construction, the pen used by Abbas Helmi II to write a few words in the museum's guest book, and a memorial stamp and coin from that time rounds off this part of the exhibition.
The tools and instruments that were used in laying the museum's foundation stone in 1897, including those used in signing the khedival decree to construct the museum, are also on show. They include the pickaxe, trowel, hammer and a wooden porringer embellished with silver decorative elements that were used for the opening, as well as the inkwell and quill used by the khedive.
A collection of maps, celebratory medallions and black-and-white photographs of the foundation and construction of the museum are also among the objects on display. Two copper desk clocks decorated with foliage ornaments and angels that once decorated the desk of French archaeologist Gaston Maspero, the first director of the museum, are also on show.
A volume of the Journal d'Entrée, created by the French archaeologist Mariette to register every object that entered the collection, accompanied by a summary description and essential data on its provenance and location, is on show.
Other institutions in Egypt have been assisting in the celebrations. “The Bibliotheca Alexandrina is proud to participate in the 116th anniversary of the Egyptian Museum and the opening of the new Yuya and Thuya gallery by its mobile application the Wall of Knowledge,” Maissa Mustafa, research manager of the Wall of Knowledge Project at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, told the Weekly.
She explained that the Wall of Knowledge app uses augmented reality technology to increase public engagement with art and heritage inside Egyptian museums, especially among the younger generations. The Bibliotheca Alexandrina's contribution also includes producing a short documentary on the different conservation steps applied to the Yuya and Thuya Papyrus from lab to display.
Naguib Sawiris, chairman of OIH, affirmed the company's interest in developing Egypt's archaeological sites to show off the exceptional richness of the Egyptian civilisation and to attract the attention of the world towards its magnificent monuments so that these become a focus of world interest.

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