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Monday, December 28, 2015

Museum-reclaims-its-Nile-view - Al-Ahram Weekly
Issue No.1275, 17 December, 2015      14-12-2015 07:24PM ET

Museum reclaims its Nile view

From Boulaq to its current location in Tahrir Square, the Egyptian Museum has a remarkable story to tell, writes Nevine El-Aref
The Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square, with its burnt-orange, neo-classical façade, has stood out as one of the city's most famous 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.
Now, after more than five decades hidden behind the multi-storeyed headquarters of the once-ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), gutted during the 25 January Revolution of 2011, the Egyptian Museum is to overlook the Nile again.
The roar of bulldozers joins the customary noise of Tahrir Square in the heart of downtown Cairo. The blackened headquarters of the now-defunct NDP, which stands between the museum and the Nile, is being demolished and its land returned to its original owner, the Ministry of Antiquities.
The land on which the NDP headquarters was built was originally used as a dock for cargo vessels transporting antiquities down the river from Luxor, Aswan and elsewhere in Upper Egypt to the museum for restoration or display.
In 1887, a welcoming ceremony was held at the dock for the arrival of the royal mummies, recovered by the then-antiquities director Gaston Maspero from a secret cache in Luxor, where they had been hidden by priests during the New Kingdom.
Museum designer Marcel Dourgnon had constructed the gate of the museum further from the Nile River not only to enable construction of the port but also to avoid the kind of building errors that had occurred at the Boulaq Museum, which had suffered significant damage when the Nile flooded in 1878.
Maps drawn up in 1911 and 1926 show a bookshop and cafeteria on the land, while to the west of the site stood the museum's workshops and storehouses.
The dock continued to welcome the museum's visitors from the banks of the Nile until the 1952 Revolution, when the land was sequestrated by the government from the Egyptian Antiquities Authority, now the Ministry of Antiquities, and used by various departments of the regime.
The last tenant was the NDP, which shared the large Nile-side premises with the National Council for Women, various national agencies and the Arab Bank.
On the evening of 28 January 2011, the building was gutted by fire in the midst of fierce fighting between security forces, demonstrators and thugs during demonstrations in Tahrir Square.
On the same day, the Egyptian Museum itself was partly looted despite attempts to protect it by protesters who formed a human chain around the site. Thieves raided the museum's shop for jewellery, smashed display cases, and ransacked the ticket office.
Protesters succeeded in capturing a number of people who had broken into the museum, confiscating stolen artefacts and handing them over to the police. Some of the stolen objects were recovered within days of their robbery.
A statue of King Akhenaten was discovered amid garbage close to Tahrir Square and a number of other artefacts, including part of a broken wooden sarcophagus, were found lying on the ground to the east of the museum. Other collections, including an ancient Egyptian flute and gilded statuette of King Tutankhamun were found in a bag at the Tahrir metro station.
In March, a final report was issued stating that 54 artefacts were still missing. Copies of the list were submitted to both Interpol and the International Council of Museums.
Meantime, former minister of antiquities Mohamed Ibrahim described the burned-out NDP building as "a time bomb and a real threat to the museum and its priceless collection."
The former NDP headquarters was considered unsafe and could collapse at any time. In early October 2015, a ministerial decree was issued ordering the demolition of the abandoned NDP building. The job was given to the Engineering Department of the Armed Forces.
When the demolition is complete, says Minister of Antiquities Mamdouh Eldamaty, the area will be converted into an open-air museum and showcase some of the museum's collections, now short of space in the main building. A hall for temporary exhibitions will be built in a bid to attract more visitors to the museum.
Part of the land will be turned into a garden, similar to the one built by Pharaoh Amenhotep III at the Karnak Temple in Luxor. This could be planted with papyri and lotus flowers, Eldamaty said, and a collection of ancient Egyptian artefacts exhibited in it.
A source from the Egyptian Museum, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that providing a buffer zone around the museum, instead of having it situated right next to another building, was important for security.
Elham Salah, head of the Museums Section at the Ministry of Culture, told Al-Ahram Weekly that the museum will undergo "minor development." This includes the upgrading of its indoor lighting system and refurbishment of its showcases, as well as improving the displays in some of the museum's exhibition halls.
A long-term development plan for the museum was launched in 2012. "The Revival of the Egyptian Museum" was dedicated to defining the future role of the museum within the local and international museum landscape and giving it the prominence it has long deserved.
The initiative aimed at studying the museum's existing situation and developing a practical plan for its full rehabilitation. It was funded by Germany's Foreign Office and the Centre for International Migration and Development and executed by Environmental Quality International (EQI), an internationally acclaimed investment and consulting firm that specialises in natural and cultural heritage conservation and sustainable development.
Together, the Ministry of Antiquities and a high-calibre team of local and international architects, engineers, conservators, Egyptologists, environmentalists and botanists worked closely to launch the revival.
The initiative was made possible by an exemplary public and private partnership, engaging members of the business community, research institutions and scholars, both locally and internationally.
Eldamaty told the Weekly that the museum, as it stands today, appears to have undergone significant modification over the past decades, most of which have harmed the overall homogeny of the building and its architecture.
The revival's aim is to address the pressing physical needs of the museum and to ensure that appropriate steps are taken to present the museum as it was originally intended to be seen, so that it remains a reference destination for both national and international visitors.
Since its inception, Eldamaty added, the plan, officially called the Revival Initiative, has been participatory, not only at the operational level, but also in the envisioning and decision-making process. The strategy adopted to achieve sustainability in implementing and financing the works emphasises the cooperation between the private and public sectors.
"The initiative includes interventions in architecture, restoration, maintenance and conservation and is also designed to cover the entire Tahrir area and its environs," Eldamaty told the Weekly.
He added that the overarching goal of the initiative is to enhance not only Cairo's position as a cultural travel destination but that of all of Egypt. "The revival of the home that houses some of the world's most valued treasures is one of our ministry's priority contributions towards the achievement of this goal."
Eldamaty explained that a multi-pronged strategy was adopted to facilitate the implementation of the initiative. It consists of advancing architectural restoration works for rehabilitation of the museum by employing fresh university graduates with the requisite skills and providing them with the necessary supervision, training and guidance.
It also provides technical and managerial training for the museum staff to preserve the monuments and enhance the visitors' experience, as well as implementing educational and awareness activities to engage the local community.
Where buildings are concerned, Eldamaty said the approach to the physical works is guided by four basic principles: sound environmental management and energy conservation practices, prevention as a means for improved conservation of the monuments, implementation of labour-intensive works, and maximisation of the impact of on-the-job training of young university graduates engaged in restoration work.
In 2014, the first concrete work started with restoration of walls, floorings and ceiling skylights in four halls in the east wing of the Tutankhamun Gallery on the museum's second floor.
By the end of 2016, said Eldamaty, "we plan to complete not only the restoration of the entire east and north wings of the gallery, but also address the pressing issues of proper lighting, clean-up and redisplay of some of the world's most precious artefacts."
To help develop the community, a series of programmes and events engaging the museum staff will be implemented. Museum tours, lectures, art, craft, educational workshops and public meetings will periodically be organised on the museum grounds to reinforce the relationship between the museum, its surrounding community and visitors.
"As we progress in the implementation of this landmark initiative, the Ministry of Antiquities is intent on improving the experience of every visitor coming to Egypt to visit the Egyptian Museum," Eldamaty said.
It also endeavours to make a major contribution to the understanding and appreciation of Egypt's hospitable and inclusive cultural heritage. As such, the ultimate success of this seven-year initiative may be measured by the extent to which it contributes to the steadfast revival of Egypt's multicultural identity and the commitment of its people to its renaissance.
Mounir Neamatalla, founder of EQI, says that the biggest offence was the encroachment on the museum grounds by the Cairo Municipality in the late 1950s, which led to the construction of the headquarters of the Arab Socialist Union and then the NDP building.
"Not only did it create an eyesore that obliterated all connection between the museum and the Nile, but both buildings encroached on history and sent a negative message to the world, captured by every camera and communicated in various platforms in social and conventional media," said Neamatalla.
He added that the Revival Initiative was designed to put a stop to all this by sending a positive message about the birth of a new Egypt, which cherishes its peaceful identity and inclusive heritage. "Demolishing this building and incorporating this land within the museum's grounds has provided what was meant to be an eternal connection between the museum and the River Nile."
Within the museum's original enclosure, new facilities were built, modifying the layout and aspect of its gardens from the original plans. Physical changes were also made to the museum building, within and outside.
Emad Farid, architect on the Revival Initiative team, told the Weekly that museum designer Dourgnon had a vision for the museum as a whole but with time and a change of management, those in charge of the museum were less and less aware of what this vision was and dealt with each aspect separately.
"The result is what is now a haphazard concoction of elements, rather than the harmonious work of architecture it was meant to be," Farid said.
He said such changes included the addition of bomb shelters that impeded the natural lighting from the skylights and increased the load on the museum building, the partitioning of its exhibition halls for the creation of storage spaces, and the haphazard modification of its interior design.
"The museum lost its original lighting scheme, wall colour schemes and terrazzo floors," he said.
Ramez Azmi, architect of the Revival Initiative team, explains the difficulty in trying to understand the extent of the damage that had been done to the original museum design.
"It was rather difficult to get all the information since there were no official records of how exactly the walls of the museum looked," Azmi said, adding that each hall had a different look and feel. "We had to strip down the walls ourselves and slowly reveal details, ornamentations and original colours."
According to the design plan, which the Weekly has obtained a copy of, the revival of the Egyptian Museum also addresses issues with regard to museum curation and conservation limitations.
After having spent more than a year researching and surveying the museum, the team is ready to propose methods to improve the visitor experience and enhance artefact preservation and display.
This is an indispensable resource, as currently the curators and conservators lack the materials and tools to carry out their work, which means that the techniques used for curatorial work, maintenance or presentation of the artefacts are, for the most part, below international standards, if implemented at all.
The layout of the showcases themselves does not maximise the potential for visitor satisfaction, being both difficult to follow and unflattering to some of the exhibited items. The scarcity of labels and information provided on these items makes it difficult for visitors to place them within their archaeological and historical context.
Sanaa Fouad, senior curator of the Egyptian Museum, said that the displays themselves are valuable. They were made to best represent the works and are part of the historical value of the building. "Restoring them is vital to the visitor's viewing experience," Fouad said.
The initiative proposes to follow some simple rules for the construction of single-storey buildings on the western side of the museum. It includes temporary exhibition halls, new restoration laboratories, administrative offices and other museum facilities.
The existing commercial buildings, recently constructed in the western courtyard of the museum, will be kept, and the present bookstore, gift shop and restaurant maintained and upgraded. The architectural style of the newly built facilities are in harmony with the existing neo-classical architecture of the historical building.
A Pharaonic garden, designed to resemble Egyptian gardens in ancient times, will be surrounded by a portico. The museum's main garden to the south will be redesigned and called the Egyptian Botanical Garden, which will serve as an encyclopedia of indigenous Egyptian plants.
The team has also proposed construction of a pedestrian tunnel and docking facilities. The tunnel would allow visitors to go to the banks of the Nile, and visitors coming from the Nile by boat to enter the museum's site through its western river frontage. The tunnel will be built under the existing Corniche and will directly connect the museum complex to the Nile.
Khedive Said appointed the French Egyptologist Auguste Mariette as director of the newly established Antiquities Service in 1858. His job was to preserve and protect Egypt's cultural heritage. Mariette was given a modest house in Boulaq, originally the premises of the River Navigation Company of Boulaq, one of Cairo's ports. This house would become the nucleus of the first museum of Egyptian antiquities.
Mariette stored the antiquities discovered during his excavations in the house. It was not until 1863 that Khedive Ismail approved the construction of a museum of Egyptian antiquities in the city centre. But the project was postponed due to financial constraints, and Mariette was merely granted more space in front of the house in Boulaq to expand his "museum".
Boulaq Museum officially opened to the public in 1878, but a high Nile flood caused much damage in the area and many artefacts were destroyed. The museum was closed for renovation and repair until 1881, after which it was reopened. Mariette passed away and was succeeded by Gaston Maspero, who was granted both jobs: director of the Boulaq Museum and the Department of Antiquities.
The treasured collection at Boulaq Museum had increased in size and in 1890 it was transferred to Ismail Pasha Palace in Giza, which is now Giza Zoo.
 Upon his appointment as director of the museum and the Department of Antiquities, the scholar Jacques de Morgan reorganised the collection in the new museum, which was then known as the Giza Museum.
After several calamities in the Boulaq and Giza museums, which resulted in much damage and the loss of invaluable artefacts, construction of a new Egyptian museum became imperative.
An announcement for a competition for the best architectural design was made and, in 1895, the prize went to Frenchman Dourgnon. The cornerstone of the Egyptian Museum was laid on 1 April 1897. On 15 November 1902, the Egyptian Museum was officially opened.
Based on European architectural models, the museum is typical of large public and institutional buildings — libraries, theatres and city halls — built at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century all over Europe and America. Such buildings were mostly isolated, monumental and designed in a classical style known as Beaux Arts, which was populat during this period.
The Egyptian Museum was the first museum in Egypt to be designed with massive internal space to house large numbers of Pharaonic monuments.
The development of the Egyptian Museum and its surroundings, according to the original plan, continued until the 1952 Revolution, when political instability, heavy bureaucracy and a lack of systematic planning threatened the museum's position as the world's largest establishment dedicated to ancient Egyptian artefacts.
One of the challenges it has faced is the breakdown of a natural ventilation system and the high fluctuations of humidity due to the absence of a system for air control. Because of this, windows are often left open, especially in the summer, to get fresh air inside the museum but which has caused damage to many artefacts.
Missing window panes in the skylights on the roof also contributed to the deterioration of objects, in addition to the ease by which thieves could break into the museum, as shown during the January 2011 Revolution.
In other instances, wholly inadequate protective measures have been used. For example, following Egypt's defeat in the 1976 Six-Day War with Israel, the government decided to build concrete covers on top of the skylights to protect the museum from potential air raids. This was done without taking into account the increased load on the roof.
Another constant problem is construction being carried in the vicinity of the museum, which has affected its structure. Vibrations caused by tunnel boring during construction of metro lines and from traffic passing nearby in Tahrir Square and over the 6th of October Bridge caused cracks in the museum's walls, as well as in some of the artefacts.
The Egyptian Museum was managed by foreign directors until 1950, when Mahmoud Hamza became the first Egyptian director. By 1949, British military barracks to the southeast of the museum were removed, creating a larger public space within the museum's grounds.
Five years later, in 1954, Cairo Governorate took a large section of land west and south of the museum to construct the headquarters of the Arab League, a hotel and a building for the Cairo Municipality where, in the early 1960s, Egypt's President Gamal Abdel-Nasser established the headquarters of the Arab Socialist Union.
The ASU was converted to the National Democratic Party in 1978 by Nasser's successor, Anwar Al-Sadat.
In the late 1970s, a number of transport infrastructure and tourism development projects were established on the northern side of the museum. The 6th of October Bridge and Ramsis Hilton Hotel in Abdel-Moneim Riad Square were constructed without taking into consideration the development of the museum and its general layout.
The All Saints' Cathedral was demolished to make way for these works. The garden on the eastern side of the museum was reduced to broaden the adjacent thoroughfare.
To the south, the gardens were removed and replaced by a bus station, which itself was demolished in the 1980s during the construction of the Tahrir metro station.

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