The GEM of history
From the Ezbakiya Gardens to its current location in Tahrir Square, the Egyptian Museum has a story to tell, says Nevine El-Aref
The Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square, with its deep-rose, neo-classical façade, has stood as one of the city's most familiar landmarks since its construction in 1902. It is home to 150,000 of the nation's most important artefacts from a long and unique span of Egypt's history.
Over the last two centuries, however, the rapidly increasing numbers of discoveries resulting from excavations all over the country have overwhelmed the museum's galleries. The huge size of the ancient Egyptian collection means that thousands of pieces remain in the museum storerooms.
Within the framework of the drive by the Ministry of Culture and the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) to preserve Egypt's priceless treasures, both stored and newly-discovered, to create the best environment in which to display them, and to release the pressure on some overstuffed provincial museums, the Egyptian Museum was placed at the top of the list. The launch of the construction scheme of the planned Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM) overlooking the Giza Plateau has also spurred a sprucing up of the museum and its renovation plan.
The GEM will be built on 117 feddans of land and will display 130,000 artefacts spanning the predynastic era through to the early Roman period. Minister of Culture Farouk 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, builder of the Great Pyramid, as well as the marvellous collection of Yuya and Thuya, grandparents of Akhenaten, and objects from the tomb of Sennedjem, the principle artist during the reign of Ramses II, as well as royal mummies and treasures from the city of Tanis. These items are currently on display in various galleries in the overcrowded Egyptian Museum, which is suffering from pollution and vibration from Cairo's crowded traffic zone.
The GEM will not, however, replace the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square. The latter will still house 10,000 masterpieces of Pharaonic art and sculpture from the different periods of ancient history. More than 70 per cent of its present contents will be moved, but those that remain will be glorious, and there will be space to exhibit important pieces that have hitherto not been given due prominence. In the meantime, some major changes will be made to enhance the experience of visitors to this key museum. First, visitors will use the entrance and will exit into an open area located on the west side of the museum. In this area a large museum shop will be built where visitors will be able to buy books, replicas and souvenirs. There will also be a cafeteria. Tourists will be able to enjoy a leisurely visit to the museum and buy unique objects bearing the museum's logo.
This redesigning plan will be carried out in collaboration with the Italian government with a budget of 1,319,000 euros, following the signing of a memorandum of understanding between the Ministry of Culture and the Italian government.
Hosni told Al-Ahram Weekly that the project will transform the Egyptian Museum into a "cultural lighthouse" which will help Egyptians to rediscover the meaning of their identity and the features of the Egyptian personality. It would also renew the museum as an educational institution, which would help revive the cultural awareness of Egypt's people, he said.
Zahi Hawass, secretary-general of the SCA, explained that the project aims at redesigning the museum both inside and outside. Redesigning the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir will re-envision the space in which the museum's collection would be displayed, he said, and exhibitions would be held that had maximum educational impact on the public.
A new scenario, based on the guidelines provided by the Scenario Committee, and a detailed plan of the new displays within the exhibition space, including new showcases and an improved lighting system, will be implemented.
To highlight the history of the Egyptian Museum and the story behind its construction, an exhibition displaying 160 of its earliest artefacts, documents, letters, the tools used in its construction, photographs and architectural designs is being organised to precede renovation. Last Sunday, in the temporary exhibition hall on the museum's first floor, a number of journalists, photographers, archaeologists and top officials gathered to inaugurate the first ever exhibition relating the museum's history. Items of display include the construction tools used by Khedive Abbas Helmi II to lay the museum's foundation stone in 1897, the ink jar and quill used by Auguste Mariette, and a volume of the Journal D'Entrée, created by Mariette to register every object that entering the collection, accompanied by a summary description and essential data on provenance and its location. A 19th-century decorative clock is also on display, along with the original copy of the museum's architectural design drawn by the French architect Marcel Dourgnon. A collection of objects featuring some of the first 5,000 objects that formed the museum is also on show.
Wafaa El-Seddik, general director of the Egyptian Museum, said the idea of the special exhibition came to her mind in order to highlight the history of the famous museum before its renovation, which will begin in three months' time. "Another exhibition showing the museum's renovation scheme will run in early November in the gallery in front of the present display hall to show the public the old and new interiors of this great museum," El-Seddik told the Weekly.
Italian Egyptologist Patrizia Piacentini from Milano University said the Italians had cooperated with the loan of two large volumes of documents that had been kept in the university archives for more than a century, which will be put on display for the first time at this exhibition. These include Victor Loret's detailed description of the Boulaq Museum when he visited it in 1881.
"Loret has recorded his journey inside the museum and described it room by room with infinite care, listing and sketching the objects, copying their inscriptions and indicating their position in the showcases were the last in the life of Auguste Mariette, who then occupied a house alongside the museum," Piacentini said. He continued that an additional number of notes, photographs and drawings by Loret that provide more details about the objects presented in the museum in 1881, along with information on their position in the rooms, garden and even in the stores, were also stored in the university archives.
Also on show are some of a completely unknown series of watercolours produced preparatory to the decoration of the rooms of the Palace of Khedive Ismail in Giza. These were found in a private collection and put at the disposal of the Egyptological archive of the university. The decoration of most of the rooms of the Giza palace were designed by the Italian painter Gaetano Lodi, who in 1867, together with Paul Boudry, decorated the foyer of the Paris Opera and in 1873 came to Cairo at the request of Khedive Ismail to decorate the Giza palace and other buildings and villas in Egypt in his typical style, a blend of Oriental, ancient Egyptian, neo-baroque and neo-classical motifs.
"After the three-month long exhibition, a copy of these items provided by the Milan University will be made and offered to the Egyptian Museum," Piacentini promised.
In the early days archaeological finds were often taken abroad or given away. The idea towards the creation of a museum of antiquities goes back to the days of Mohamed Ali Pasha, when the ruler agreed to the request addressed to him in 1830 by the French decipherer of hieroglyphs, Jean-François Champollion, soliciting him to safeguard and preserve the Egyptian heritage. In 1835, concrete steps were taken towards the creation of such a museum, and Mohamed Ali issued a decree to send the first Pharaonic collection to Sheikh Rifaa El-Tahtawi, the director of the Language School in Al-Ezbakiya, who put it in the school's storeroom. In 1848, the Egyptian government put Linant de Bellefonds in charge of compiling an inventory of the objects as a security measure, but the plunder continued. In about 1851, the collection was transferred to the Salaheddin Citadel where it was only accessible to private visitors. In 1855, however, most of these objects were offered to Archduke Maximilian of Austria, and nowadays they represent a major part of the Egyptian collection at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.
In 1858, when the French scholar Mariette took the initiative of officially establishing "Le Service des Antiquités de L'Égypte," one of the aims was to put an end to the indiscriminate plunder of Egyptian treasures. As director of the Antiquities Service and with the encouragement of Khedive Ismail, Mariette acquired the former premises of the overland transit company on the banks of the Nile in Boulaq, a convenient place for off-loading cumbersome antiquities transported on barges down the Nile.
This site was near today's Radio and Television Building. Although Mariette regarded it as a temporary museum while he planned suitably impressive and more centrally-located premises, he went to great effort to remodel the building. He adorned its façade in a neo-Pharaonic style and arranged the antiquities -- which ranged from Pharaonic sphinxes and stelae to statues, false doors, busts and scarabs -- into a chronologically-disorganised collection; but while appealing to the eye of the casual visitor, this did little to aid understanding of the artwork produced by Egypt's long and enduring civilisation. Greek, Roman and Christian objects were displayed together in one of the sections.
The museum in Boulaq opened in 1863 and was visited by European celebrities attending the ceremonies marking the opening of the Suez Canal. Later, a particularly high flood flowed into the basement, which necessitated the rapid removal of the whole collection. The treasures were transferred to an annex of Ismail's Giza Palace, now the faculty of engineering of Cairo University.
As a result of this, and due to the rapidly increasing number of discoveries resulting from excavations all over Egypt, building a new museum became an urgent necessity. In 1896 a tender went out inviting bids for the construction of a suitable museum for the treasured objects from Egypt's past.
A year later, a design by the French architect Marcel Dourgnon was accepted and the foundation stone of the Egyptian Museum was laid in Qasr Al-Nil (today's Tahrir Square). It took four years for the magnificent neo-classical museum building to be completed.
Its two storeys, arranged around an atrium, held more than a hundred rooms, while a vast basement housed the artefacts that continued to flow into Cairo from excavations around the country. The transfer of the collection from Giza to the new location began in March 1902. The design of the new museum was such that the treasures could be arranged chronologically on the ground floor and by object type on the first floor. Initially there were 150,000 objects on display and the museum was unique in presenting the whole course of development of a single civilisation from the pre-dynastic through to the Roman period. The ground floor enabled the visitor to follow the development of Egyptian art, particularly in the fields of sculpture and the graphic arts, with a variety of columns, burial chambers, small chapels and other architectural features, along with large stone sarcophagi. In the graphic arts section, the museum was so planned that the visitor could appreciate the wide range of bas-reliefs and fragments of paintings.
The gala opening was attended by Khedive Abbas II. The French archaeologist Gaston Maspero, Mariette's successor, became the Egyptian Museum's first director.
The rapid increase in the size of the collections, especially following the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922 and the equally impressive objects found in the royal necropolis of Tanis -- not to mention the thousands of statues, sphinxes and sacred animals in stone and bronze found in the Karnak cachette (the bronze items alone numbered 17,000) -- resulted in the need to reorganise the exhibits time and again. Display cabinets became overcrowded. One way to solve the problem was to encourage the transference of some selected pieces to the Graeco-Roman Museum in Alexandria and the Coptic Museum in Old Cairo. Later, it was decided to transfer to provincial museums such as Mallawi, Luxor, and later Aswan, objects that had been discovered during excavations in those locations. Yet still antiquities flowed into the Egyptian Museum as, indeed, they continue to do.