The Cairo ConnectionArticle
Five for Egypt: The Ägyptisches Museum Berlin has joined together with four European partners for a unique project on Tahrir Square.
Things were busy in the entrance hall of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo one weekend in April. On world-famous Tahrir Square, where the country’s largest rallies were held during the 2011 Egyptian revolution, tourists pushed and shoved, trying to find their way around the historic museum building from 1902. Some started their tour not far from the atrium, in the small annex with pieces from the Predynastic period, and others followed their tour guide right to Tutankhamen, the real star of the collection, or they went upstairs into the hall of mummies.
Exterior of Egyptian Museum on Tahrir Square in Cairo © Diego Delso, CC BY-SA 3.0
Soon, visitors will no longer be able to admire all of these objects from ancient Egypt’s different epochs under one roof. Since the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization in Fustat, the historic suburb, is already partially open, the royal mummies will be moved there this summer. Tutankhamen, on the other hand, will be moved to a new home in Gizeh next year. The Grand Egyptian Museum is being built not far from the pyramids with Japanese aid. Finds from excavations in recent decades, which are still being stored in the Egyptian Museum’s basement, will also be exhibited there. The grand old building on Tahrir Square is making room so that the remaining items from graves and sculptures can be presented in newly renovated spaces.
On that April weekend, unnoticed by the tourists, experts from major European collections headed for the large conference room tucked inside the museum. Along with their Egyptian colleagues, they were planning to design a concept for the museum of the future. The project is called “Transforming the Egyptian Museum Cairo” and it was initiated 18 months ago by the Egyptian Minister of Antiquities, Khaled El-Enany, Christian Greco, Director of Museo Egizio in Turin, and the EU diplomatic mission in Cairo.
This constellation of three had previously sounded out options for a new course for the Egyptian Museum’s future. This led to the idea of bringing the directors of the other European collections on board for this unusual endeavor. Everyone on the executive levels of the Louvre in Paris, the British Museum in London, the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden in Leiden, Netherlands, and Friederike Seyfried at the Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung (Egyptian Museum and Papyrus Collection) of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (National Museums in Berlin) agreed.
For the first time in their history, these five major European collections would be working together on one museum project, and it would not just involve trading loaned objects for special exhibits. Despite the initial euphoria, it soon became obvious that the available subsidy of 3.1 million euros would limit the ambitious plans. So for some time, there has been talk of a second phase to the project with an even bigger budget. This would be the only way to prepare the Egyptian Museum for the digital age.
For now, they are not talking about digitization or virtual reality. Instead, under the leadership of the Egyptian host and director of the museum, Ms. Sabah Abdel Rasik, the experts in black leather chairs around the oval conference table discussed what can be done currently as far as visual improvements are concerned. The six museum directors have been acquainted for years. They know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. They combined the strengths into areas of excellence to be incorporated into the joint venture. Thus, the British Museum together with Egyptian colleagues will concentrate on the Late Period sarcophagi, the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden will concentrate on the Predynastic period and the Museo Egizio will help make the connections from Imperial Rome to the Old Kingdom appear in a new light. The Louvre will work together with Egyptian curators on a new setting for the treasure of Tanis, part of which is already on view. After all, French Egyptologists helped with the early excavations in the northern Nile Delta.
The experts from Berlin will take care of restoring stone objects from the Old Kingdom. But they will be especially involved with all issues pertaining to the old building. The experience they acquired in the renovation of old buildings on Museumsinsel (Museum Island) apparently echoed all the way to the Nile.
Friederike Seyfried and her team will not have to tackle this important job alone. Thanks to the intervention of Hermann Parzinger, president of the Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz (Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, SPK), they can rely on help from the Federal Office for Building and Regional Planning (BBR) and its president, Petra Wesseler.
But first, the issues in Cairo need to be prioritized. Egyptian restorers, building experts, and curators came to Berlin for talks in May and soon colleagues from Berlin museums and experts from BBR will travel to Egypt.
If the changes to the Egyptian Museum are to be truly pioneering, it will take more than just a few quick, highly visible changes. Seyfried has long-term goals: “The building basically needs to be renovated from the ground up. But our goal is to create a viable plan, so we first have to think about time frames and financing.” At the moment, only a rough estimate is possible.
One thing is certain: the museum in Cairo, which is the heart of all Egyptian collections, deserves this kind of effort. Seyfried said it is still too early to speculate about a possible consortium for that kind of general renovation: “First we will look at the situation in detail and then decide which preventative measures could be carried out at this point.”
The museum directors involved have agreed to draw up a master plan that will go beyond March 2021. The work that needs to be done will be oriented to each museum’s area of excellence. The British are considered to be the leading storytellers and the Italians the best art handlers. The Rijksmuseum will provide expertise in publishing, science, and archiving, while the Louvre will be responsible for restoration, conservation, and digitization.
This project is a unique moment of happiness
The EU title, “Transforming the Egyptian Museum Cairo,” may sound a bit like development aid from European museums for Egyptian colleagues. But on the academic level this is definitely a win-win situation, Friederike Seyfried, who has already called the project a unique “moment of happiness,” emphasized. “The work opens new doors to scientific knowledge for us. The scientific foundation must be laid for everything that will be exhibited in a museum for the 21st century. It will be developed with fantastic young local scientists, unique objects, and European colleagues. Putting the collections there in context with the ones here will create completely new results and presentations in research,” she said.
Cairo Egyptologist Tarek Sayed Tawfik, a member of Director Sabah Abdel Rasik’s consulting team, shares Berlin’s optimism: “The EU project offers secure general conditions for collaborating with our European partners on scientific projects and receiving new, interesting information about the collections of all the museums involved.”