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Alexandria's elegant showcase
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 22 - 09 - 2005

With the upcoming international conference on museology opening in Alexandria the city can be proud of its latest gem, says Jill Kamil
Alexandria National Museum in a 20th century mansion in central Alexandria is a state-of-the-art museum in which objects of all epochs are displayed in uniquely suspended showcases. When it was officially opened last winter it caused a great impact. How could it not? The building itself is an Italian-style mansion built in 1928; the objects on display are in diagonally-placed cabinets that do not detract from the elegant architectural features of the building and, what is more, they have not been seen before; they were hitherto in storage in the Egyptian, Coptic and Islamic Museums in Cairo and in the Graeco-Roman and Jewellery Museums in Alexandria. The collections on display in their sophisticated and well-designed setting, superbly lit and with well-placed and accurate labels, were praised by all. The launching was a great success.
Sad to say, however, the ceremony over, the museum saw few visitors. Ask a resident of Alexandria for the location of the National Museum, Al-Mathaf Al-Watani, or the new museum, Al-Mathaf Al-Gedid, and you are more likely than not to be faced with a blank stare. Ask a taxi to take you there and, as likely as not, you will be taken to the Graeco-Roman Museum. Even the staff of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina shrug their shoulders when you inquire, and then recommend the museum displays in the library itself.
Yet the National Museum is not difficult to find. It is situated at the eastern end of Al-Hurriya Street (no number!), not far from the "Flower Clock", and the newly-painted, Italian-style mansion built in 1928 by Assad Basili Pasha, a wealthy merchant, can easily be recognised. Its freshly painted façade in shining white, with a semi-circular double stairway leading to elegant doorway, is clearly visible from the street. This was the mansion once frequented by such Egyptian notables as former prime ministers Ismail Sidqi and Ali Maher. It was sequestrated in the mid- 1950s, fell into disrepair, and served as the American consulate until 1996. When it was purchased by the Ministry of Culture in 1997 it was decided to convert it into a museum.
It deserves a high profile, and to be placed high on the list of travel agencies' "must dos" in Alexandria, but unfortunately it does not so far enjoy that happy distinction. Even the elegantly-bound hardback publication entitled Alexandria National Museum, with prologue by Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni, preface by Supreme Council for Archaeology Director-General Zahi Hawass, and introduction by project manager Ayman Mahmoud, is more of a history of Alexandria than a guide book to the museum. A great many of the images have nothing to do with the museum at all -- vide famous statues in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, pictures of the Sphinx and the Pyramids of Giza, and limestone reliefs from tombs at Saqqara. Champollion had naught to do in Alexandria, yet his photograph appears in the book, while another, of peasant farmers beside a canal at Abu Rawwash, defies explanation.
The section of the book on the founding of Alexandria is appropriate and interesting, with entertaining photographs of the Alexandria Corniche, its main thoroughfares, a palace and a law court -- but not a photograph of the Assad Basili mansion, let alone a single gallery. Some of the individual museum objects are included, but in poor colour separation and so faded that they hardly give justice to the space.
So much money has been spent on a publication that fails to fulfil its purpose. Alexandria National Museum does not even contain a map showing where the museum is. Its single redeeming feature is the plans of each floor at the rear of the book. Consequently, in an attempt to rectify the deficiency, Al-Ahram Weekly is setting out to describe how the Alexandria National Museum came into being, and why it is so special.
It would, of course, have been an easy matter to strip the interior of the palace and re-design it to accommodate galleries suitable for the display of fine objects. However, the building's interior was too distinctive to destroy, and so it was generally agreed that an effort should be made to maintain the original structure and display the objects which span the history of Egypt from Pharaonic to modern times, and which include objects from the royal collections of kings Fouad and Farouk.
It was Italian designer Maurizzo De Paulo who came up with a singular solution as to how this could be achieved. His unique and highly imaginative concept was that, in order that the objects on display would not have a negative impact on the buildings' interior design, suspended show- cases would be set diagonally across adjacent rooms.
When one considers that many of the rooms in the palace were small, and that some 1,800 works of art were to go on display in a confined area, yet space must be allowed for free movement of visitors through narrow doorways, the enormity of the task can be realised. De Paulo's idea was unique -- nothing like it had ever been envisioned, anywhere in the world, and it says a great deal for Egypt's progressive attitude towards museums that the Ministry of Culture was ready to consider such a project, let alone ecourage its execution.
It is hard not to use a cliché when describing the result. The Alexandria National Museum is, in a word, breathtaking. Here are displays on each of three floors of antiquities from different periods within the confines of an exquisite Italian-style building. Each floor in this three-storey structure is devoted to an epoch: Pharaonic on the ground floor; Graeco-Roman on the first; Coptic, Islamic and 20th century treasures on the second, and, a final surprise, down a narrow stairway to the basement is a replica tomb, with genuine funerary furniture: canopic jars, anthropoid sarcophagi containing mummies, ushabti figures and the deceased's private possessions are all part of this mise-en-scène that offers a snapshot of the ancient Egyptian world-view of burial and the afterlife.
We are familiar with Pharaonic monuments, and a sceptic might imagine that a floor devoted to objects representing the peak dynastic periods -- the Old, Middle and New Kingdoms -- would be little different from such displays in other museums. How wrong this impression would be. The masterpieces chosen, which include a statue of King Menkaure, builder of the Third Pyramid, a fine statue of a scribe and several statuettes of servants depicted at work, along with offering tables, building tools and statues of deities, are not -- in these new surroundings -- just "more of the same". Each object is professionally illuminated, visible from all sides, and accompanied by accurate labels. The chambers through which the cabinets pass are likewise lit to advantage, and a selected object or group of objects have been placed to enhance the interior design, along with accurate historical plaques. It is a professional achievement, and the first of its kind.
The 19th-century French historian Jules Michelet wrote that a visitor to a museum should not be a passive onlooker but, rather, a participant, a person who can interact with the objects on display. This museum offers more than that. A visitor can interact with both the objects and with the aristocrats who lived in such a palace.
The section of the guide Alexandria National Museum that covers the Graeco-Roman period describes the founding of Alexandria, the hybrid god Serapis, the so-called Pompey's Pillar, 19th- century paintings of Alexandria and Caesar, and the transportation of two obelisks from Alexandria port -- but naught of the beautifully-painted terra- cotta Tanagra figurines of fashionably dressed Greek women that stand motionless with styled hair, wearing hats or veils, holding children, fans or pets. And no mention of the provenance of such an unquestionable masterpiece as the nude bronze statue of Harpocrates with forefinger to mouth (in Pharaonic style) and curls of Greek inspiration.
A highlight of the museum is a display on the Graeco-Roman floor of artefacts raised in recent years during underwater excavations in the environs of Alexandria. To provide a comprehensive look at this new branch of archaeology, huge posters feature activities from various underwater sites over the last four years. Ibrahim Darwish, director of the museum, considers that the most important pieces raised from the sea bed and now on display are the black basalt statue of a high priest in a temple of the goddess Isis, lifted in 1998; a granite statue of Isis found in May 2001; and a granite stela of Pharaoh Nectanebo I discovered in the sunken city of Herakleion offshore from Abu Qir, which is an identical copy of the Naucratis stela found in 1899 and now in the Egyptian Museum.
From the Roman era there are busts of the Emperor Hadrian and a red granite statue of Caracalla. The collection includes reports from pioneering scientific studies on the human body undertaken in Alexandria, complete with marble hands, legs and torsos.
This museum provides an opportunity to compare religious traditions. Coptic items include icons of Jesus and the Virgin Mary and the Last Supper, as well as tombstones and clothing decorated with golden and silver crosses, while among the Islamic objects are a collection of 162 gold and silver coins minted in Alexandria, a number of metal incense burners, chandeliers, decorated pottery, doors and mashrabiya windows inset with geometric ivory ornamentation.
The extravaganza of Egypt's former royal family is revealed in a collection of magnificent jewellery, bejewelled gold and silver awards, watches, crystal glasses and vases, not to mention gold-plated handbags, rings, necklaces and bracelets. Remember -- all are displayed in suspended cabinets so that they can be viewed from all sides.
Museums no longer serve the purpose they once did, as elegant showcases for a passive audience. They now provide an educational function; they are designed to stimulate cultural interest and historical continuity. Today no modern museum is complete without its high-tech restoration laboratory for antiquities and an electronic security system to preserve them. Alexandria National Museum is no exception. A hall in the basement has been transformed into an audio-visual workshop in which visitors can tour the museum via computer programmes that display each item from a variety of angles. Use has been made of every available space, even the grounds; the old garage for the American Consulate staff has been converted into a lecture hall and an open-air theatre for evening performances. Indeed, the grounds have already been used for one of the American University in Cairo Press's Book and Author receptions.
Alexandria prides itself on the Bibliotheca Alexandrina (which has a museum for objects discovered on the site and other pieces, and another for illustrated manuscripts), the Graeco-Roman Museum (which is temporarily closed for further restoration), the Jewellery Museum (spasmodically opened to the public), and the Naval and Mosaic museums. Among this plethora of visual and intellectual delights, let us place high on the list the Alexandria National Museum, a beacon of culture.
Alexandria National Museum, Al-Hurriya Street, Alexandria.
Entrance fee: Egyptians and residents LE2, foreigners LE30.
Open from 9am to 4pm; closed for Friday noon prayer.


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