Preparing for the GEM
The Grand Egyptian Museum is once again in the limelight as it prepares for the inauguration of its first phase, reports Nevine El-Aref
Overlooking the Pyramids at Giza, the Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM) with its eye-catching trapezoidal architectural design is surrounded by workers, engineers and consultants all wearing gloves and yellow helmets and hard at work.
They are absorbed and driven in spite of the heat to complete the construction of the long-awaited 500,000 square metres of the new museum whose spacious, glass-fronted building offers an enormous panoramic view of the Giza Plateau.
"This is the world's largest museum devoted to a single civilisation," GEM Supervisor-General Tarek Tawfik told Al-Ahram Weekly. Upon completion, the museum will create the best possible environment for the display of Egypt's priceless treasures as well as providing more space, better lighting and more information on them, helping to do justice to Egypt's heritage, he explained.
He said that 80 per cent of the museum's construction, carried out in collaboration with the Engineering Authority of the Armed Forces, had been achieved and was scheduled to be completed by the end of 2018.
The inauguration of the museum's first phase would be within the first quarter of 2019, including the atrium, the grand staircase and the 7,000 metre Tutankhamun Gallery where the entire collection of the golden boy-king would be exhibited for the first time ever in the shape of more than 5,000 treasured artefacts.
More than 4,000 objects from Tutankhamun's collection had been transferred from the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square, the Luxor Museum and the Military Museum at the Citadel in Cairo to the GEM's Conservation Centre, he said.
Among them were three funerary beds, six chariots, clothes and statuettes. "Items which form the core of Tahrir Museum's exhibition, such as the shrines, the golden objects and the iconic mask, will not be transferred to the GEM for the moment, but will come shortly before the official inauguration of the GEM's first phase," Tawfik said.
He added that distinguished artefacts would replace the boy-king's collection in the Tahrir Museum such as the Tanis jewellery treasures of the 20th and 21st dynasties and the funerary collections of Tutankhamun's great-grandparents Yuya and Tuya.
In the atrium of the GEM, he continued, visitors would be welcomed by the iconic granite colossus of the Pharaoh Ramses II along with the column of his son Meneptah. They would then walk along the grand staircase, where a collection of 87 royal colossi such as those of Amenhotep III, Akhenaten and Thutmose III would be on display along with a number of gigantic architectural items.
"Our design is for the entire museum, but we will start with the Tutankhamun collection because it is the first phase opening gala," Uwe Rudolf Brückner, founder and creative director of Atelier Brückner, which won the international competition for the GEM's interior design, told the Weekly.
The company is a leading design office for museums and exhibitions, architecture, expo pavilions, brand and visitor centres.
"Our design philosophy is based on the idea that form follows content, and this depends on the objects themselves and the story that comes with them. Hence, we will start designing the collection from what the curators tell us about the importance of the artefacts and the story behind their discovery. Their beauty and meaning are also taken into consideration," Brückner explained.
He said the idea of the Tutankhamun collection's display would focus on enhancing the background story of every artefact in the collection in a way that highlighted the object and its artistic beauty as well as its background story.
"This is what museums are all about," Brückner said, adding that 21st-century museums could open doors to secret worlds known to only a few people. "The idea of a museum is to let visitors participate in the experience and knowledge of museologists and experts," he said.
This could be achieved through the objects that remained the stars of the exhibition. With smart story-telling and scenography, the background story of the objects can be enhanced. For example, he explained, if a visitor was in front of a beautiful artefact in a showcase, on demand he or she could touch the showcase and information would appear relating the story of that object.
He told the Weekly he liked the idea of enhancing the re-contextualisation of the objects so people could better understand their origins.
"I want to create a journey through Egypt that does not stop in Giza and the Pyramids where the museum is located, but travels south towards Upper Egypt, Luxor and Aswan. It is an invitation towards a journey to Ancient Egyptian culture," Brückner concluded, adding that the goal would be to attract visitors not once but several times in order to experience and explore things they may never have seen before.
STATE OF THE ART: "The GEM is not only a state-of-the-art museum, but also Egypt's new Pyramid and a major cultural, historical and educational institution," Minister of Antiquities Khaled El-Enany told the Weekly.
It would contain over 100,000 artefacts reflecting Egypt's past from its prehistory through the Greek and Roman periods in an area covering 92,000 square metres and designed to use the latest technology systems, including virtual reality, to be in direct contact with other regional and international museums.
"It will create a new experience for Cairo and a new type of museum for the world, one which will become a main node in a global network of museums of Egyptology and will relocate the cultural and intellectual issues of Ancient Egypt to the land of their origin," El-Enany said.
He went on to say that the GEM would have much more to offer beside the extraordinary Ancient Egyptian artefacts, since there would also be revenue-generating opportunities to guarantee the sustainability of this cultural complex and the diversity of its activities and events.
The GEM will have a conference centre for more than 1,000 guests, a cinema for 500 persons, an attractive retail area with 28 shops and eight restaurants, a further two large restaurants and an open-air theatre overlooking the Pyramids and spacious piazzas for festivals with more than 15,000 participants.
There is also a large multi-functional building attached to the complex that can be used for administration, rendered as a boutique hotel, or used for other innovative purposes.
The management of this cultural mega-project will be to the highest international standards, providing Egyptian and international visitors with an unforgettable experience, the Ministry of Antiquities in collaboration with the Ministry of Investment and International Cooperation announced last week at a press conference for the pre-qualification stage for bidding on the GEM's facilities management, addressing local and international companies and consortiums.
"The Ministry of Antiquities is the only authority responsible for the management and security of the GEM's treasured collection, as well as anything related to antiquities, such as exhibition halls, the maintenance and restoration centre, and the children's museum," El-Enany said.
He described the GEM as "the largest and most significant cultural project in process globally. It is going to be a wonderful attraction that blends history with a modern and authentic twist."
Egypt is the world's capital of cultural tourism, he pointed out, adding that nothing would make a bolder statement than when this magnificent museum had its official opening with the completion of the Giza Plateau Development Project for the area as a whole.
At the end of the conference, the museum's new logo was released to be used in promotional campaigns in Egypt and worldwide. The logo was designed by Lebanese-Dutch artist Tarek Atrissi in collaboration with Atelier Brückner.
Atrissi is one of most recognised designers in the Arab world. He has gained an international reputation for his graphic work and has received prestigious awards and honours throughout his career. He was listed in 2017 as one of the 100 most-influential Lebanese professional figures worldwide.
LOGO CONTROVERSY: The new logo has created controversy among archaeologists, artists and architects, however.
Its opponents see it as ugly with poor graphic efficiency that does not reflect Egypt's identity or the GEM's unique collection. They also accused the GEM and the Ministry of Antiquities of preventing Egyptian artists from submitting their designs.
However, the logo's supporters describe it as the branding equivalent to international counterparts such as the British Museum in London, the Louvre in Paris, and the Metropolitan Museum in New York. They see it as appropriate to the architectural design of the GEM and in line with the best in modern graphic design.
Artist Mohamed Abla told the Weekly that if budgetary reasons had determined the commission of Atelier Brückner for the GEM logo, the Ministry of Antiquities should have launched an international competition for the design, offering the winner a month-long visit and free accommodation in Egypt as a prize.
"Thousands of artists would have contributed entries to a competition like this," he said, adding that a committee of artists and graphic designers should have been asked to evaluate submissions.
Artist Salah Al-Meligi said the designer had focused on the museum's architectural design instead of the GEM's contents which came from Egypt's great civilisation. "He could have used one of the ancient symbols and re-interpreted it to be the msuseum's logo," he said, describing the calligraphy used in the new logo as "weak".
The Arab Society of Fine Art Designers also issued a statement saying that the design of the logo did not abide by the principles of effective design or showcase Egypt's great and ancient civilisation. It offered to help the Ministry of Antiquities to organise a competition of arts and graphic companies both locally and internationally to select a new logo for the GEM.
The logo came under fire on social media as several artists and intellectuals thought it failed to communicate the significance of the GEM.
Tawfik said the logo reflected the unique footprint of the GEM in orange, conveying the warmth of the evening sun that imparts this colour to the sandy landscape before setting in the west behind the museum. He added that the name of GEM, written in Arabic script on the logo, was designed to reflect the sandy dunes of Egypt, whilst its simple calligraphy resonated with equivalent logos used by famous international museums such as the British Museum, the Louvre, and the Metropolitan Museum.
He pointed out that responsibility for the logo's design fell within the remit of the company responsible for the interior design and exhibition set-up of the galleries in the GEM's first phase. The company had won the contract in an international competition, in which 20 participating companies had come from eight different countries, he said.
A committee including Egyptian artists, architects and archaeologists had selected the new logo after reviewing designs submitted by the company. Atelier Brückner had offered a number of proposals to the committee, some of which used traditional images such as amulets and pyramids. The committee had chosen a modern abstract form to match current marketing trends, in an attempt to target new and younger generations and to steer away from traditional images, he said.
Atrissi told the Weekly that the design of the logo had been inspired by the unique shape of the museum building. The top view of the architecture, considered as the fifth façade of the museum, had been replicated in graphic form that included custom-drawn contemporary Arabic calligraphy with the name of the museum.
"The positioning of the logo is dynamic and can be constantly changed when it is used, reflecting how the museum has been designed to create connections to the rich landscape around it, including the Pyramids, the city of Cairo, and the Nile," Atrissi explained.
He added that the logo's design reflected the different historical perspectives seen from within the museum building and symbolised the connections between the interior and exterior space of the building's unique location and design.
"The colours were inspired by the natural palette of the environment surrounding the museum. It was carefully chosen to have a unique colour to stand out as a brand in comparison to local and international museum brands," Atrissi explained.
Former minister of antiquities and archaeologist Zahi Hawass told the Weekly that he understood "the fierce objection of Egyptian intellectuals to the design of the GEM logo because they consider the GEM not only as a major Egyptian cultural project, but also as the cultural project of the century." He added that they had misunderstood the philosophy behind the selection. International museums use simple logos, he said, without giving a visual indication of their collections.
Hawass said the selected logo should be used as a promotional tool for marketing the GEM until the museum's final inauguration in 2023. The Ministry of Antiquities could then launch a new international competition to select a final logo for the GEM, with the participation of Egyptian and international artists, he said.
"The French were totally against the Eiffel Tower in Paris when it was built, but today it is an iconic landmark. They even described it as an ugly structure that didn't reflect the French identity and spirit," professor of architecture at Cairo University Dalila Al-Kerdani commented. "I am really happy that such a controversy has arisen as it is good publicity for the logo," she added.
She said the design reflected Egypt in general, as it showed the plan of the GEM, its location in the surrounding desert, and the Arabic calligraphy of its name.
"The final form is far from complex in order to make it simple to use and to leave a good visual impact," she pointed out, adding that the committee had reviewed the logos of other international museums and previewed the logo on promotional products to be used in the museum's marketing campaign.
FUTURE PLANS: El-Enany responded to the criticism of the new logo by saying that it was only promotional and was not necessarily the final design.
He welcomed the comments from the relevant syndicates, universities and artists and promised to launch an international competition to select a final logo for the museum, as well as one for the National Museum of Egyptian Civilisation (NMEC) and other museums in Egypt.
"To have a building that harmonises well with its unique surroundings with the Pyramids as its backdrop and providing the next generation with a place where they can really get to know the roots of their civilisation is something fantastic," El-Enany said.
The GEM project was launched in 2002 to build a state-of-the-art antiquities museum near the Giza Pyramids to solve the problems of the overstuffed Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square and to bring together materials stored at various archaeological sites across the country.
The design is by Shih-Fu Peng of the Dublin architectural firm Heneghan, winner of the international architectural competition held in 2003.
In 2010, the construction of a power plant, fire station, storage galleries and fully equipped conservation centre were achieved.
The project is funded by the Egyptian government and two soft loans from the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), which in 2006 provided the first loan of $300 million to be repaid over 30 years at 1.5 per cent interest. Payments will be made in instalments after a 10-year grace period following the GEM's official opening.
The second loan, in 2016, is for some $460 million, which the government will repay over 25 years at an interest rate of 1.4 per cent after a seven-year grace period. Egyptian businessmen have also donated significant amounts. Budgetary constraints encountered after the 25 January Revolution led to problems, slowing the construction of the new Museum.
In 2012, a joint venture between Egypt's Orascom Construction Industries (OCI) and the Belgian BESIX Group was awarded the contract for the completion of the GEM's third phase, which includes the construction of the museum's main building and landscaping.
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