A Modern Museum for an Ancient Nation?
With the French Revolution came the first truly public museum in the world, the Louvre, which opened its doors in 1793. Private collections owned by wealthy individuals were made accessible to the middle and upper classes in major European cities roughly since the eighteenth century. Access to such collections by a greater public was seen as one of the engines of European enlightenment. With the emergence of public museums came a new approach to art history that considered the views of the beholder, rather than just the viewpoint of the artist. New fields of knowledge became essential because museums were national spaces where identities were negotiated through the ritual of viewing untouchable objects.
Power relations between object, owner, institution, and viewer were constructed based on class relations: aristocrats owned precious objects that could be viewed by a wider audience within an institutional setting. Once objects were clearly identified as unfamiliar, such as Pharaonic, new dimensions including race and exoticism were added to the museum experience. Awe-inspiring ancient art from faraway places stimulated a wave of travel, treasure hunting, and exploration to destinations such as Egypt.
In Egypt, beginning in the nineteenth century, the Khedival family and wealthy individuals with the intent of preserving national memory collected items that would later fill Egypt’s museums. Egypt’s museums were the product of a nineteenth century European understanding of Egyptian history, which divided it into four discrete periods: Pharaonic, Greco-Roman, Coptic, and Islamic. Until today, Egypt’s four leading museums each focus on one of these eras in the absence of a true national museum that crosses these constructed, discrete historical phases. Moreover, since the nineteenth century, museums in Egypt have been associated with travel, although they were not intended to be purely touristic destinations.
The Egyptian Museum, more accurately known as the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, was established in 1835 by the government in Azbakiyya and later moved to multiple locations. Its current Tahrir Square, salmon-colored edifice was built in 1901. The politics of Egyptian archaeology and the Museum—where newly discovered objects were stored or displayed — were complex as Elliott Colla expounded in his 2007 book, Conflicted Antiquities: Egyptology, Egyptomania, Egyptian Modernity. European explorers dominated Egyptian archaeology, as well as the processes by which found items were catalogued, studied, and displayed.
After the 1952 coup d’état, Gamal Abdel Nasser established an Egyptian Ministry of Culture. For a few years, Pharaonic Egypt captured the national imagination, until Nasser’s regime fully focused on Pan-Arabism. During those brief early years, the state directly manipulated Egypt’s cultural history and material legacy to fit a nationalist narrative. Certain personalities and episodes were celebrated, such as Mena, the first king who unified Egypt three millennia BCE. Celebrating the heritage of Ancient Egypt was further illustrated in 1955 by the placement of Ramses II’s colossal statue at the heart of Cairo’s main square just outside the train station. Films, exhibitions, photography books, home decorations, and fashion were inspired by Ancient Egypt. Tahrir Square was the center of Nasser’s Cairo, and the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities was at the heart of Tahrir Square.
With Anwar Sadat’s “liberal economy” and series of privatizations after 1970, the state was no longer the primary patron of culture. Privatization came at the same time as the rebirth of mass tourism in Egypt. By then, the economic gap between Egyptians and international tourists had widened. Also, the number of tourists able to travel had increased dramatically from the previous decade; travel was made easier with more accessible air travel. Five-star hotels began to line the Nile, and tour operators bused flocks of tourists between Cairo’s main attractions.
In 1979, when Jehan Sadat hosted a three-day fundraiser headlined by Frank Sinatra who performed beside the Great Pyramids and Sphinx, guests were promised unrestricted access to ancient Egyptian sites, and the Museum was closed to the public to allow their private visit. Few Egyptians were invited to this event, which included a fashion show at the Pyramids, visits to other historical sites, and five-star accommodations. These were the features of Egypt’s refashioned tourism industry.
The Egyptian Museum became a destination for package tourists to indulge in their fantasies about mummies and the Boy King. From the start, the Museum fulfilled touristic and cultural functions for different audiences. However, by the 1970s it had lost its cultural orientation towards Egyptian audiences and had become more exclusively touristic. The erection of a high iron fence around the building that was once directly accessible from Tahrir Square further isolated it from Egyptians. In the following decades, the Egyptian Museum became heavily guarded and functioned more as a storage facility rather than as one of the most important public museums in the world.
A Secure Museum for Whom?
The Egyptian state has been firmly in control of archaeology and of the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities for several decades. Egypt’s first and only Minister of Antiquities, Zahi Hawass, personifies the notion that Egyptians are in control of their ancient heritage, previously dominated by Europeans. This control has translated into security-oriented policies that claim to protect artifacts from theft and vandalism. In reality, this has meant protecting artifacts from Egyptian masses, while making them available to tourists. The government has not capitalized on Egypt’s material legacy as a cultural resource central to discourses on national identity and heritage. The Supreme Council of Antiquities’ main goals have been security not accessibility and mass tourism not culture.
My first visit to the Museum as an adult was in 2006, when a friend was visiting Cairo from the United States. As we approached the security checkpoint, a foreboding first encounter with a cultural institution, identification was requested of us. I had never been asked for identification to enter a museum anywhere else in the world, let alone the most important museum in my home country. While she had no problem entering, being American, I was questioned about my relationship with my friend and my reasons for entering the museum. As an Egyptian, who is not a tour guide, I was treated as an object of suspicion.
This visit made clear to me that the purpose of the Egyptian Museum is purely touristic. Museums have become fortified storehouses for badly labeled, disorganized artifacts meant to be consumed purely as objects with little historical significance besides their apparent old age. Tourists are meant to be the prime consumers of these objects, as they pay seventy to one hundred pounds to enter in contrast to Egyptians who are charged a few pounds.
The Egyptian Museum displays neither tell a story nor convey a coherent narrative, national or otherwise. Instead, the organization of displays is sometimes by theme, such as the famous room of mummified animals, by a period or by a person such as King Tut and his objects. What is lacking is not a manipulation of objects for a nationalist narrative, but rather evidence of a central component of any successful museum: curation.
At present, the Museum’s organization is a priori. Egypt’s top public museum demonstrates not only the greatness of ancient Egyptians but also the near absence of the fields of public history, museum studies, and art history in today’s Egypt. Even the most studious visitor will not leave the Museum with a better understanding of the historical evolution of ancient Egyptians’ lives. Nor do displays confront the modern history associated with the exploitation of ancient Egyptian art and its fluctuating position in the formations of national and colonial identities in Egypt and in Europe.
Because Egyptian tourism is dominated by the package tour variety, most visitors experience the Museum as part of a larger group herded around by a tour guide who is trained to showcase certain pieces, while breezing by the rest. The antiquities authorities fail to realize that the majority of tourists who visit the Museum have been to museums in their own countries, which are probably better maintained and curated. This means that most visitors leave the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities distraught by its poor state and out-of-date displays and organization. When it comes to Egypt’s museums and cultural sites, few visitors will be inclined for a return visit.
Most importantly, the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, like others around the country, has little or no connection to the general public. During the uprising in Tahrir Square, when Egyptians formed a human shield around the museum, it was to protect it from other Egyptians. Those who see the historical and national value of museums are a minority due to state policies that have disenfranchised the public and reduced Egyptian culture into easy-to-consume clichés that target foreigners.
Since Hawass’ rise to international stardom, his power has reached far beyond his area of expertise to include Egypt’s entire historical heritage from the pre-Pharaonic period to the twentieth century and everything in between. Yet, he is the de facto Director of all of Egypt’s museums and historic sites. These museums and their organization, linked to a particularly Eurocentric understanding of Egyptian history, have not been reconfigured to fit an alternative narrative beyond the neat four-part division conceived a century earlier. The Museum of Egyptian Antiquities became known as The Egyptian Museum, as if the Greco-Roman, Coptic, and Islamic Museums are any less Egyptian. A native has colonized Egyptian heritage.
Adding insult to injury, during the Tahrir protests of 9 March, the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities became known as salakhana: the torture chamber. Military police used the museum as a command center, due to its secure location, where they held, interrogated, and tortured protesters. The single most important museum in the country with Egypt’s most valuable artifacts was transformed into a place where Egyptians were beaten and humiliated.
A New Museum for a New Egypt?
During a visit to the Egyptian Museum in Torino, I was blown away by what I witnessed. It was not the immaculate or simple displays, the clear labeling, and the well thought out organization, or even the lighting and temperature controls that impressed me. Rather, I admired the sight of hundreds of school children accompanied by their teachers and divided into smaller groups touring the building. These children were told interesting stories about the objects and artifacts, about ancient Egyptian society and religion, and about the historical value of each artifact. It seemed to me that Italian school children learn more about ancient Egyptian history than Egyptian school children do.
The Egyptian Museum in Torino is second in the world after Egypt’s own. And Italian children are taught that the museum is part of their national cultural heritage: busts of Italian explorers are displayed alongside descriptions of their contributions to Egyptology. Children learn not only about Ancient Egypt but also about the “civilized” Italians who unearthed the objects, studied them, brought them to Italy, and carefully displayed them. School trips to Torino’s Egyptian Museum reenact a civilizing ritual, colonial as it may be, that is at the core of its mission.
The idea is not to bring Egyptian school children to Egypt’s museums and direct them to learn one version of history or another. Rather, what is lacking is fostering respect for history, historical objects and buildings to cultivate a sense of ownership, while utilizing museums as spaces to stimulate critical thinking. Instead, Egyptian school children’s brief encounter with the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities has been in the form of drilling certain clichés, such as the King Mena story, which were to be memorized and accepted.
There is no excuse for Cairo’s Museum of Egyptian Antiquities’ current condition with peeling paint and missing artifacts replaced by hand-written notes saying in Arabic “under restoration” or “in a traveling exhibition.” The Museum of Egyptian Antiquities is in need of serious remodeling and expansion. This surely will be expensive and will need a grand vision to transform and update this important institution of world heritage.
However, the recent drastic decision to move this urban institution out of the heart of the city and into the desert two kilometers from the Pyramids is a calamity and a disgrace. To signal the decision, in 2006 the red granite colossus of Ramses II that adorned central Cairo since 1955 was removed to a storage facility at the city’s edge, where it awaits a new home in the proposed Grand Egyptian Museum.
Public museums are fundamentally urban centers firmly tied to their metropolitan contexts. The mere visibility of Paris’ Louvre pyramid and inside-out Pompidou Center or New York’s Metropolitan Museum in their urbane settings is as important as the contents of these world-famous buildings. The Museum of Egyptian Antiquities is forever associated with its Tahrir Square location, especially after the well-photographed and documented uprising that took place at its doorstep. Moving the museum into a desert location outside the city center serves the museum’s current priorities of security and tourist exclusivity. Are these still the priorities of Egypt’s leading museum in light of the unfinished and ongoing uprising?
The decision to move to a far-flung location, despite the availability of a large swath of land in the heart of Tahrir Square is mysterious. The area in front of the Museum was the athletic field of the Army Barracks that once occupied the site of the former Nile Hilton and the Arab League. The area became public land and was transformed in 1954 into a public garden at the heart of Tahrir Square. Parts of it were taken away and made into a bus station, then a parking lot, under Sadat. And for much of Hosni Mubarak’s presidency, a large area had been fenced off and made into a site of permanent construction supposedly for an underground parking facility with little progress to show after over a decade.
It would be ideal to build the modern extension of the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities directly adjacent to the existing building in the heart of the city, but this does not fit into Mubarak era anti-urban policies. For decades, Mubarak’s governments favored exclusive gated developments over integrated urban projects. The earliest example of those policies was the 1985 decision to build Cairo’s new Opera in a gated campus in Zamalek, rather than rebuild it in its original location at the heart of Opera Square.
If Egyptians will be paying for the proposed 550 million dollar facility, then they must be the institution’s primary beneficiaries, and they must have access to it. The project is funded with over 350 million dollars in loans that Egyptians will have to pay back for decades. However, with a dismal public transit system and without plans to have the metro reach the new museum by its scheduled opening, Egyptians will be further alienated from their own ancient heritage. For many, the museum will be out of sight and thus out of mind.
The investment of 550 million dollars for a museum in a city where sixty-five percent of the population live in informal areas— many without proper sewer systems, potable water, and electricity—seems outrageous. The public will benefit little from the project, given current cultural and urban policies. A few 100 million dollars in modern tram lines, similar to Istanbul’s newest tram car routes, would have a greater impact on the public and would benefit residents and tourists alike. But this is not about making choices: museum or mass transit infrastructure.
I argue that public interest was never taken into account when planning this move. The state is treating the museum project as a capitalist development project instead of a national project. And the flashy name, “Grand Egyptian Museum,” reinforces colonial divisions of Egyptian history with a tinge of Las Vegas.
In addition, the 550 million dollar price tag is rather large considering that San Francisco’s De Young Museum, completed in 2005, cost only an investment of 200 million dollars. So why the inflated price tag, when Egyptian labor, the biggest chunk of a building budget after materials, is paid dismal wages? The current museum operates as a cash cow. Why has it not raised more funds over the last decade during which little of its income has been spent on maintenance? These questions are not unique to the new museum project; Cairo Airport’s Terminal 3 cost more than Istanbul’s counterpart, yet it is nearly half its size. With little oversight, corruption is a consistent feature of such grandiose projects.
In the last sixty years, most Egyptians experienced heritage either as it was fed to them by the state or as a tertiary, unimportant element of life given that over half of the population lives under the international poverty line. It will be difficult to bring those who have been disenfranchised back to Egypt’s museums and cultural institutions. And this will be made even more difficult as museums continue to function with a security-minded, tourist-centric approach that incorporates no programs and initiatives to attract the public after they move their buildings to inaccessible, gated desert locations.
The case against the Grand Egyptian Museum plans is not limited to the choice of its location. The managerial system that currently operates museums is faulty. Does the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities’ Director have real authority? Who are the Trustees? Is there a Board with the mandate to make decisions? Who is supervising the traveling exhibitions and the income they generate? What do we know about the new sleek gift and bookshop where security, lighting, air conditioning, and displays are in much better shape than their counterparts elsewhere in the Museum? Do shop revenues go to the Museum? Or is the shop an independent commercial entity?
It is outrageous that a single man has dominated such a world-famous public institution, let alone all of Egyptian archaeology, for the last twenty years. Every other position in the institution has become symbolic with no real powers, and all must bow to the Minister of Antiquities. The Museum of Egyptian Antiquities along with all of Egypt’s museums is in serious need of an institutional overhaul that divides powers, insures financial sustainability, allows museums to be integral parts of the community, and guarantees the safety of Egypt’s heritage and cultural memory.
Last year, I visited the traveling King Tut Exhibition when it was hosted at the De Young Museum in San Francisco. The entry ticket was over thirty dollars; thousands flocked to the exhibition and patiently stood in line. The exhibition began by visitors entering a rather claustrophobic room with dim lights and smoke to watch a short video starring Hawass. After meandering through the exhibition, one was confronted with a colossal four-meter-tall image of Hawass in his Indiana Jones costume. Under the portrait were books by Hawass and Suzanne Mubarak, in addition to a collection of souvenirs. With no transparency and accountability, the safety of the exhibited items and total revenues earned from traveling exhibitions and Egyptian museums are in the hands of a few persons, in collaboration with companies such as Discovery and National Geographic. Egypt’s heritage has been monopolized, commercially packaged, and exported.
Egyptians are struggling to ensure the success of their revolution. When protesters returned to Tahrir on multiple occasions, after sectarian violence and after certain political powers, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, tried to dominate the political conversation, protesters in the square insisted: “We are here as Egyptians, not as Muslims, not as Christians, and not belonging to one party or another.” This singular Egyptian identity has been built on a shared and diverse historical heritage, including our ancient Egyptian heritage.
Egypt’s diverse museums are not only essential for Egyptians as potential recreational spaces but also as cultural nodes where citizens can contemplate the past, discover shared history, reclaim and reconfigure national identity, and develop critical views of the objects and the institutional settings in which they are placed. For a country at a transitional and critical moment in its history, museums can function as places of artistic and political inspiration. According to Colla, “During the early days of the French Revolution, Ancient Egypt served as inspiration for a secular symbolic order designed to replace the church.”
The plans to build the Grand Egyptian Museum are the product of Mubarak-era cultural policies. These plans and policies must end. At this time of revolution, such a major project that was designed against the economic and cultural interests of Egyptians should be halted and reconsidered. A new Museum of Egyptian Antiquities will emerge from this revolution, but it must be in the heart of Tahrir Square and made accessible to all Egyptians.