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New museums for all
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 10 - 01 - 2006

"A year of museums" is the Ministry of Culture's theme for 2006. Nevine El-Aref learns what is being planned
In an attempt to preserve Egypt's priceless treasures, both stored and newly-discovered, to create the best environment to display them and to release the pressure in some overstuffed museums, the Ministry of Culture has placed Egypt's museums at the top of its priorities.
This year will witness the inauguration of up to five new regional and national museums and the re- opening of three others after restoration and development to bring them up to international standards.
"2006 is a revolutionary year for Egypt's museums and museology," Culture Minister Farouk Hosni told Al-Ahram Weekly. He added that this year would witness not only the building of new museums such as the National Museum of Egypt in Fustat and the Grand Museum of Egypt overlooking the Giza Plateau, but upgrading some recently-built ones and inaugurating new regional museums. "The ministry aims at building a museum in every city in Egypt to preserve the city's heritage and raise the cultural and archaeological awareness of its inhabitants."
In Alexandria, an open-air museum of underwater objects brought up five years ago from the Mediterranean sea-bed has been established within the Roman Theatre area at the Kom Al-Dikka archaeological site. It displays some 39 large granite and basalt statues featuring unidentified top officials, seated sphinxes dating from the ancient Egyptian era and the Graeco-Roman period, stelae engraved with hieroglyphs, and huge blocks that might be parts of the ancient Alexandria lighthouse.
Mohamed Abdel-Maqsoud, director of the Central Administration of Ancient Egyptian Antiquities, said the sand stone obelisk bearing the cartouche of Pharaoh Seti I, founder of the 19th Dynasty, was the masterpiece of the collection. He said the obelisk, divided into five enormous blocks, weighed 18 tonnes. To protect the collection from damage due to environmental changes metal sun shades covered with wooden plaques have been installed.
Another development project is underway at the Graeco-Roman Museum. Since last September, when Hosni announced its two-year closure, work on evacuating the museum's halls has been in full swing. Curators of the Graeco-Roman Museum are now examining the objects on display in an attempt to pack and transport them to their new homes at the Alexandria National Museum and the maritime museum.
"Curators are exerting all their efforts to pave the way for the development project which aims at restoring the building, renewing the showcases and upgrading the display scenarios according to the latest international museological standards," Graeco- Roman Museum director Mervet Seifeddin said. She said the Graeco-Roman Museum in Alexandria was like the Egyptian Museum in Cairo: its basement was overwhelmed with objects that did not actually belong to the museum itself. It contained objects brought from various excavation sites in Alexandria and Marsa Matrouh, as well as boxes filled with confiscated items along with the usual museum collection. Hence, an inventory to classify the objects was a necessity. Confiscated objects and artefacts that belonged to archaeological sites have been documented, packed and moved to the Maria storehouse in Marsa Matrouh, while items which were in the museum's possession were now under restoration before being transported to Marsa Matrouh. Ahmed Abdel-Fatah, archaeological supervisor for Alexandria's museums, said the antiquities police were preparing the Maria storehouse to hold such treasures by installing a state-of-the-art security system.
Zahi Hawass, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), said the museum's garden would also be re-arranged under the development project, with a view to turning it into an open- air museum as well as installing new lighting and ventilation systems. To facilitate the visitors' path, a number of information billboards would be displayed along the museum corridors. To provide more space for the exhibits, a one-floor building will be constructed in the back yard. It will house the museum's distinguished library which includes a number of rare Arabic, English and French books written by travellers who have visited Egypt since the 11th century up to modern times, a lecture hall, an audio visual hall and the museum's administration offices. Abdel-Fatah said all these rare books had been documented on CD before being packed. After the re- opening of the museum, these CDs will be the only references to be used by students and researchers so as to preserve and protect the original books from misuse.
Hawass pointed out that the museum collection would be put on show chronologically, starting with the era before the reign of Alexander the Great and following through to the Ptolemaic era from the reign of Ptolemy I to Queen Cleopatra VII and the Roman period. Some halls will be devoted to special collections, such as Graeco-Roman coins and deities.
In Rashid, the long-neglected Rashid National Museum stands waiting for visitors after being restored and returned to its original pristine condition. It has finally reached the end of restoration after two years of being buried under scaffolding and piles of sand, and workmen have been polishing and strengthening its walls and decorative items. The museum is installed in one of Rashid's famous stately Ottoman houses, the Arab Killy house which, like all the other Islamic houses in this coastal town in its picturesque setting between the Mediterranean and the western arm of the Nile, was suffering badly from structural neglect and environmental threat, including high rate of humidity, rain and subsoil water level, not to mention the adverse effects of unplanned urban expansion. All the magnificent monuments of Rashid are now unfortunately surrounded by modern buildings that have affected them almost as badly as other factors.
Hussein El-Shaburi, who designed the museum's interior, told Al-Ahram Weekly that one of the most important of the project's tasks was to undo the faults of the 1984 restoration executed by the Egyptian Antiquities Authority and to uncover the house's original features hidden beneath false painting and polishes. This led to the discovery of a small gravure and a very fine piece of Kufic calligraphy.
El-Shaburi said the museum exhibits related the history of Rashid from the town's construction in ancient times right through to the modern era. On display are 600 artefacts carefully selected from the Islamic and Coptic museums and the Gayer Anderson house in Cairo, along, with another 200 objects unearthed from archaeological sites around Rashid. These include a collection of Omayyad and Ottoman gold and bronze coins, pots and pans, versions of the holy Quran and a collection of 18th- and 19th-century weapons such as arrows, swords, knives and pistols. Tapestry, military and national Ottoman and Mameluke costumes will also be exhibited.
To give visitors an idea of what an Ottoman house looked liked, some halls of the museum have been furnished with complete sets of Ottoman furniture.
The highlight of the exhibition was a life-size replica of the Rosetta Stone offered by the British Museum in response to an official request submitted by Hawass to the museum's Ancient Egyptian Department. The replica stone, which arrived early this week, will be on show in the museum foyer.
The Al-Arish National Museum is another on the waiting list. The museum is a two-storey building relating the history of Sinai from the predynastic era to the Islamic age, displaying 1,500 objects carefully selected from eight museums in Egypt and excavation sites in Sinai. The pottery collection is one of the most important exhibits in the collection. It features various development stages in the manufacture of clay pots and pans produced in Egypt, as well as similar items imported from Syria and Palestine.
"This collection highlights the strong trade relations between Egypt and its neighbours at that time," says Sayed Suleiman, director of the Al-Arish Museum. Initial construction work is also underway to build national museums in Hurghada and Sharm El-Sheikh.
Back in Cairo, three major projects are on their way. The first is being carried out in the Coptic Museum, which lies behind the walls of the famous Roman fortress Babylon in Old Cairo. Within a couple of months the Coptic Museum will be re-opened as an up-to-date museum after years of hard work of restoration. The museum's old wing has been completely restored and furnished with the latest showcases. Its splendid mashrabiya (wooden lattice) façade and wooden ceilings have been cleaned, revealing the finely coloured foliage scenes which have long been covered by black smoke and faulty painting materials used in previous attempts at restoration. The walls have been consolidated and reinforced. A new tunnel connecting the old wing to the new has been made for visitors.
"Returning the wing to its original features was not an easy task," said El-Shaburi, who called it a "real challenge". Yet the task is almost complete, and now only final touches still remain.
The Coptic Museum collection contains one of the richest collections of Coptic art in the world. The museum consists of two wings divided into several halls: the old wing opened in 1910 and comprises 13 sections, while the new wing was opened to the public in 1947 and encompasses 17 halls. The state has undertaken continuous restoration of the historical building.
In the neighbourhood and overlooking Ain Al-Sira lake lies the National Museum of Egyptian Civilisation, which was described by the minister of culture as "a living memory of Egypt's various civilisations".
The first phase of the museum has been completed. It includes the building on site of a modern storehouse, similar to the ones at the Louvre in Paris and the British Museum in London. A laboratory to restore pieces in the museum's chosen collection was also among the achievements in the first phase.
The second phase of the project, the actual construction, is now in its early stages.
According to Farouk Abdel-Salam, first undersecretary at the Ministry of Culture, the museum building will actually occupy only five of the 32 feddans, with the remainder being taken up by landscaping and outdoor exhibits consisting of antiquities found during the course of the pre-building inspection.
The planned four-storey building -- of which the first two floors will be devoted to exhibits, the third to a documentation centre and the fourth to an archaeological and historical library -- has an exceptional architectural design to integrate with its surroundings as well as symbolise the ages in Egypt's past. It is influenced by the architectural paradigms of its brilliant collection; hence the exterior features a somewhat neutral, simple look that suits its timeless quality. The concept of the building reflects several aspects of Egyptian civilisation. Its large, square shape represents the base of a pyramid, while a gallery equivalent to a pyramid ramp leads to a smaller building representing the valley temple which will encompass a 400-square-metre educational institute and a conference hall. To emphasis the pyramid-shape of the complex, the building has a benben -shaped top which will house the archaeological library.
Abdel-Moneim pointed out that the Nile, handwriting, handicrafts, society and faith are the five main component themes of the Museum of the National Museum of Egyptian Civilisation.
Meanwhile initial construction of the Grand Museum of Egypt is underway at its site overlooking the Giza Plateau. The museum is to be built on 117 feddans of land, and will display 130,000 artefacts spanning the predynastic times through to the early Roman period. Hosni described the design of the new museum as having an aesthetic relationship with the Pyramids. The most important object to be housed in the museum will be the funerary treasures of the boy-king Tutankhamun and those of Hetep- Heres, the mother of Khufu, as well as the marvellous collection of Yuya and Thuya, the grandparents of Akhenaten, objects from the tomb of Sennedjem, the principle artist during the reign of Ramses II, and the royal mummies and treasures of the city of Tanis. These items are currently on display in various galleries in the over-crowded Egyptian Museum, which is exposed to pollution and vibrations from Cairo's most crowded traffic zone. "The aim of this new museum is to create the best environment to display these priceless treasures with better lighting and more information in order to do justice to our heritage," Hosni told the Weekly.
Hawass pointed out that the mission of the museum was to preserve, document, conserve, research and exhibit collections, as well as to educate and entertain visitors. The idea of creating a new museum to house the best of Egypt's national treasures arose from an urgent need for exhibition space.
The Grand Museum will not, however, replace the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square. "The Egyptian Museum will house 10,000 masterpieces of Pharaonic art and sculpture from the different periods of history," Hawass said.
The architects were instructed to create designs for a luxurious complex that would expand visitors' knowledge and enrich their museum experience through interactive techniques and technologies. A special section for children will be created in order to help youngsters learn about their heritage. Each aspect of the museum is being carefully considered, from the environmental impact of the project to the use of computerised simulations and the selection of objects to be exhibited.
The museum's thematic displays will begin with one on the physical environment depicting the River Nile, valleys, swamps, deserts and oases. The second theme will be kingship and the state, featuring traditions, building activities and wars in various dynasties. The third will display the Egyptian religion as practised under the Pharaoh Akhenaten during the Amarna Period. A final display will portray the daily lives of the ancient Egyptians, their sports, games, music, arts and crafts as well as their cultural and social norms.

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