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Museum of the century
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 17 - 06 - 2010

Nevine El-Aref attends the inauguration of the first two stages of the Grand Egyptian Museum
From the moment President Hosni Mubarak laid the foundation stone in February 2002 there was no doubting the scale of the ambition. The Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM) was always intended to be an architectural masterpiece, a fit home for the display of the most outstanding objects produced by Egypt's 7,000 years old civilisation.
On Monday, after eight years of work, the first two phases of the project -- including a power plant, fire station, fully equipped conservation centre with 12 labs and four storage galleries -- were inaugurated. Mrs Suzanne Mubarak attended the opening ceremony and was given a tour of the conservation centre guided by Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni and Secretary-General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) Zahi Hawass. She was accompanied by Minister of Education Ahmed Zaki Badr, Minister of Housing Ahmed El-Maghrabi, and columnists Salah Montasser and Anis Mansour.
During the tour Mrs Mubarak admired the work of young restorers. She watched a 10- minute computer simulation showing the objects, including pottery, limestone statues, and a wooden sarcophagus, on which they were working before and after restoration.
The conservation centre, said the museum's technical consultant Mohamed Ghoneim, is the largest in the world, intended not only to restore Egyptian antiquities but to be a regional conservation centre. It will also incorporate a documentation unit charged with creating a computerised database of all artefacts.
Established in partnership with the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), and with Japanese technical assistance, the centre includes 12 laboratories for restoring, scanning and studying mummies as well as objects made from pottery, wood, textiles and glass. The 122 conservators are currently working on restoring 6,800 objects that will be part of the museum's permanent display.
"In building a state-of-the-art museum near the Pyramids of Giza we want to create the best environment for the display of our priceless treasures. There will be more space, better lighting and more information available, to do justice to our priceless heritage," Hosni told Al-Ahram Weekly. He described the new museum as one of the "world's most ambitious projects" and "the museum of the century".
Hosni thanked the Japanese government for helping to fund the $600 million project. It provided a $300 million soft loan to be repaid over 30 years at an interest rate of 1.5 per cent. In addition, the Ministry of Culture will itself provide $150 million and an additional $27 million has already been donated by businessmen.
SCA economic consultant Nora Ebeid told the Weekly that an international firm will soon be appointed to manage the project's fund raising.
"The SCA has launched a preliminary campaign through its antiquities exhibitions abroad, and the response has been promising," she said. Plans are also afoot to ask visitors to Egypt's archaeological sites and museums to each donate a dollar towards the GEM.
Hosni also expressed gratitude to the Italian government, that financed the project's year and a half feasibility study. During the inauguration he presented an overview of the museum's conceptual framework, prepared by the Italians, and of the international competition set up by the UNESCO to choose the museum's design.
Over five million tourists will visit the museum and the Giza Plateau in its first year, said Hosni, a figure that is expected to increase to eight million by 2020.
Farouk Abdel Salam, supervisor of the culture minister's office, pointed out that the museum will also house a conference centre with an auditorium for 1,000, catering to theatrical performances, concerts, conferences and business meetings. The main auditorium will be supplemented by seminar rooms, meeting halls, a multi-purpose hall suitable for a variety of events, along with an open plan gallery for accompanying exhibitions. A special section for children will be created in order to encourage young people to learn about their heritage.
A 7,000-square-metres 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.
Development of the 117 feddan GEM site overlooking the Giza Plateau, planned to be completed after 26 months, makes more than a nodding pass to the surrounding desert landscape.
The museum complex will centre on the Dunal 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 firm Heneghan, winners of the international architectural competition held in 2003. According to Peng the museum, which will be partly ringed by a desert wall containing half a million semi-precious stone, will act as a link between modern Cairo and the ancient Pyramids.
"The GEM will be a beautiful space in which visitors can experience the art and artefacts of ancient Egypt in the shadow of the Pyramids," Hawass told the Weekly. "The museum boasts perhaps the largest museum conservation labs in the world."
The storage rooms will be equipped with movable units designed for secure storage and easy access, and the environment will be determined by the materials kept in individual rooms, whether they are organic or non-organic, or require low temperatures for their preservation.
The conservation centre has been constructed 10 metres below ground level.
"We are now planning to move objects from the Cairo Museum in Tahrir to the new lab for conservation and restoration," said Hawass. "That way, the objects will be ready to be installed in the museum when it is completed."
Hawass described the museum's thematic displays, beginning with the physical environment, the River Nile and the surrounding deserts and oases, moving through kingship and the state, religion as practised under the Pharaoh Akhenaten during the Amarna period, and displays focussing on the daily lives of the ancient Egyptians, their sports, games, music, arts, crafts and cultural and social practices.
The new museum will house objects drawn from prehistory and up to the early Roman period. The unique funerary objects of Tutankhamun, Hetepheres, mother of the Pharaoh Khufu, Yuya and Thuya, the grandfathers of Pharaoh Akhenaten, Senedjem, the principal artist of Pharaoh Ramses II, the royal mummies and the treasures of Tanis will all be on permanent display.
"Khufu's solar boats, now on display at the Giza Plateau, and the red granite statue of Ramses II, removed four years ago from Ramses Square in downtown Cairo, will also be among the permanent display," said Hawass.
To guarantee security and complete isolation of the complex from the surrounding neighbourhood an iron fence has been erected and is monitored by CCTV cameras. A buffer zone of trees has also been planted.
Building the conservation centre and the galleries underground, said Farouk Abdel-Salam, the Ministry of Culture's chief of cabinet, means that the complex avoids the intense summer heat of the plateau.
"All mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems will be centrally regulated, stabilising conditions in each space based on the objects it contains," he said.

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