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Egypt’s national museum-to-come

The first time I traveled to Cairo I had the opportunity to spend an afternoon in the national history museum, and my reaction of both amazement and dismay is one shared by many of those who have toured it.  The vast old museum, located right in the heart of the city, is architecturally recognizable to anyone who has seen any of the world’s museums constructed more than a century ago (the museum in Cairo was built in 1902):  huge columns, weighty open spaces for display, one has the feeling of walking through an Indiana Jones movie.  What often surprises visitors is how accessible are so many priceless artifacts of Egyptian history, and in ways that seem to violate at least a novice’s sense of proper curatorial practices:  little climate control, mummies out for open display, open crates with their contents exposed just sitting on the main floor, too many irreplaceable treasures literally touchable.  But ironically this also adds to the allure of the place, as one could wander around as if in the back room where one imagines all the good stuff is hidden, and without having to peer through security glass and the sometimes overpowering effect of the informational signs on everything.  To the contrary, it was always surprising how little information on so many clearly significant treasures was available to museum visitors.

For some time now the Egyptian national government has been at work designing and now constructing a vast modern museum to showcase Egypt’s deep past, and to do so in a way likely to best preserve antiquities undamaged by touching and coughing and more intentional criminal behavior.  Ground was broken last year with a projected opening in 2010; the facility is being built near the Great Pyramids complex and the old museum will stay open for ongoing displays as well.  The new venue, the largest such museum ever built all at once in the world, will allow more than 100,000 artifacts to be displayed at any given time (at the old space another 10,000 will also remain on public view).  Some of the money needed for this enormous undertaking (now priced at $550 million) is being raised by sending Egyptian artifacts on tour around the world; in Atlanta a Golden King exhibit will display 130 artifacts and images from the King Tut burial site starting this fall.  When Philadelphia hosted the last Tut exhibit to tour America, more than 1.3 million people came, an total estimated to have produced a $127 million dollar economic impact there.  Nearly ninety percent of the visitors came from outside the city, which means they were also buying hotel rooms and rental cars and expensive tourist food.  Egypt is expecting to raise roughly $30 million from the new American tour that will be put toward museum construction costs.

The economic benefits of the new museum at Giza will be considerable for Egypt, too.  More than seven million people from around the world visit the Pyramids every year, and the hope is that by placing a vast new world class museum right there, all those visitors will pay the extra money to tour when they come to see the Pyraminds, and they are probably right.

There is some irony in the now decades old effort to showcase Egypt’s deep royal past since the epic allure of the Pharoahs is historically almost wholly disconnected from the nation’s contemporary Arab/Islamic culture (literally speaking, of course, the belief systems of King Tut and his contemporaries are blasphemous paganism for Islam); it would be something akin to this curiosity were the American government to expend billions of dollars to build museums documenting the relics of the ancient migration that brought humans across Alaska and down onto the mainland.

The comparison falls flat, of course, because of the enormous pull on the global imagination exerted by Egypt’s distant past, which has as great an appeal today in Cairo, Georgia (or Illinois) as in Cairo, Egypt.  As early as the “early 19th century, the architect Sir John Sloane decried what he called an ‘Egyptian mania’ in the visual and decorative arts of his day, inspired by the Napoleonic invasion of Egypt in 1798 and the subsequent British intervention in the region” (Curren, pg. 739).  Antonia Lant, in an essay recounting the cultural attractions of Egypt for western cinematic culture, points out that

The alliance between optically novel and illusory forms of representation and ideas about Egypt precedes even the invention of cinema.  It is detectable since at least the French Revolution and persists throughout the nineteenth century – across lantern shows, panoramas, dioramas, photographs, and photographic criticism, and on into the emerging sphere of cinema itself.  Further, the intersection between Egyptianate material and prefilmic moving images and traces of Egypt can and do inhabit the same tangible architectural space; but there is also a magnetism between conceptual accounts of the nature of entertainment by projected light and Egypt – an imaginative association pulling together the ancient culture and modern spectacular invention.

The point may seem academic and tangential until one realizes how common these associations are even today.  The idea is thus not just that the first publicly exhibited transparent panorama in Britain (in 1849) was a river trip on the Nile, or that all the early film companies (the Lumiére brothers, Edison, Pathé, and Kalem) sent crews to Egypt to shoot footage there even before World War I, or that between 1908 and 1918 alone five versions of Cleopatra were filmed and exhibited (Lant, pgs. 101-102).  In today’s Atlanta, for instance, the city’s oldest and most majestic theater, the Fox, is explicitly organized to feature Egyptian themes everywhere in the complex, right down to the reproduced sense that once one enters the main auditorium one imagines she is entering a darkened Royal Tomb.  And beyond the popularity of the Tut tours, museums in the last two decades have also mounted major and successful shows that self-consciously examine Egyptomania (including shows in Manchester UK, Berlin, St. Petersburg FL, at the Louvre in Paris, the Canadian National Gallery in Ottawa, and the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna).  The Louvre exhibition was described as among the most popular held there in its recent history.

The allure of Egyptomania was also evident nearly twenty years ago when the Egyptian national government invested considerable resources to rebuild the ancient library at Alexandria, one of the lost wonders of the world, producing a modern and stunning Bibliotheca Alexandrina.  The project seemed to uniquely capture the world’s attention.  There, too, alien cultures from Egypt’s deep history (in this case Hellenism; remember the city was founded not by Egyptians but Greeks) were being celebrated (if only implicitly) by a modern Arab government.  The new facility is often said to have succeeded because the architects understood that a new national library could not simply enact nostalgia; thus what was finally built connects to the city’s many pasts as well as to its present, developed in such a way as to architecturally connect the ancient lighthouse (Pharos) with today’s University of Alexandria campus.  And the location is also organized in a way recognizably mindful of Alexandria’s historical significance as a global trading and imperial crossroads.  As one commentator who participated in the design process has described it,

The glory of Alexandria was not the Pharos or the library, but the idea that these represented:  the spirit of inquiry that stretches the bounds of human knowledge.  The program thus became for us the raw material that would allow us to give concrete form to the idea.  The major sections of the library would constitute its formal face, facing outward toward the sea.  As a stronghold of knowledge, this face might take on a fortress-like character, extending along the site of the medieval Arab wall, the rhythm of its bays recalling the citadel across the harbor.  This wall would open up at the axis to Qayt Bey, creating a plaza that leads to the formal entrance of the library….  The public realm of a cathedral is the piazza, which one might chance upon and stroll casually through; but if one wishes to experience the public space of a mosque, the courtyard, one must make a conscious decision to enter.  In a similar fashion, the grand public space of the library should be separated from the outside world by a threshold that one crosses consciously.  It is this space that took on the shape of a circle, generating radial axes for the main portion of the library, setting up a sequence of interior views toward the seas…  Numerous cultures, notably the Pharaonic, the Hellenistic, and the Islamic, have blended together to form a rich synthesis that is unique to the Egyptian context.  Contemporary Egyptian architecture must be seen as a continuation of this process of cultural overlays:  its authenticity derives from its ability to draw on historic precedents, transforming them into forms that are modern, yet culturally readable and relevant.

One of the fascinating implications of these remarkable and intellectually invaluable additions to global cultural preservation work is how, in navigating the demands of modern religion and culture and their often tenuous relations to the actual historical past, so much of the resulting overlay speaks as much to the public’s appetite for mythology as to the historians’ demand for an accurate accounting.  I do not mean to imply that the Egyptian historians, who are exceptionally sophisticated and well versed in the subjects of their work, are careless or jingoistic.  But the challenges posed by the construction of the new Alexandria Library illustrate the difficulties:  as the Columbia University classicist and historian Roger Bagnall has noted,

There is no ancient account of the foundations of the Library.  We have only brief and glancing references….  It is reasonably obvious that the ancient sources thought the libraries were enormous but had no good figures to work with…. In sum, the ancient figures for the size of the Library or the number of volumes lost in the Alexandrine War do not deserve any credence.  They do not appear to rest on any good ancient authority, they were repeated from author to author, and when their consequences are examined, they lead to impossibilities and absurdities….  It is idle, given this reality [here Bagnall is referring to the inevitable decay that would have occurred in the papyrus texts over time], to indulge in such Gibbon-like reflections as the following claim of Hugh Lloyd-Jones:  “If this library had survived, the dark ages, despite the dominance of Christianity, might have been a good deal lighter; its loss is one of the greatest of the many disasters that accompanied the ruin of the ancient world.”  This is to get things backward….  An unburned building full of decaying books would not have made a particle’s worth of difference.

There is, of course, an important difference between the Alexandria Library project and the new work on an Egyptian National Museum:  the Library was built to evoke Egypt’s glorious past, the Museum is being built to document it.  But only twenty years ago these tensions were still fresh.  Reporting on the state of Egyptian Egyptology after a research leave in Cairo undertaken by a now retired colleague then working in the Georgia State University history department, Donald Reid made an observation that may be truer today given the ongoing (and increasing) allure of Islamic fundamentalism within Egypt today:

Egyptology seems too firmly rooted in Egypt to be swept away.  Yet its attraction – leaving folk beliefs in the magical powers of antiquities aside – still seems limited to the more secularized minority, and there would be little place for it in the ideal Islamic society envisioned recently by fundamentalists.  Most middle and lower-class Egyptians remain immune to the fascination of the pharaonic past.  They shake their heads with puzzlement as the eccentric khawagas tramp over the ancient sites with their guides and guidebooks.  And the old religious feeling of revulsion at a pagan past still echoes in the cries of Sadat’s assassins at their trial:  “We have killed Pharoah!”

SOURCES:  J. Scott Trubey, “Exhibits to Unearth Rare Boon,” Atlanta Business Chronicle, 1-7 August 2008, p. 3A, 25A; Roger Bagnall, “Alexandria:  Library of Dreams,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 146.4 (December 2002): 348-362; Mark Mack and Nezar AlSayyad, “History as a Design Mode: The New Biliotheca Alexandrina,” Journal of Architectural Education 44.2 (February 1991): 110-118; Antonia Lant, “The Curse of the Pharoah, or How Cinema Contracted Egyptomania,” October 59 (Winter 1992): 86-112; Brian Curran, “Review of Humbert et al., Egyptomania: Egypt in Western Art, 1730-1930,” The Art Bulletin 78.4 (December 1998): 739-745; Helen Whitehouse, “Egyptomanias,” American Journal of Archeology 101.1 (January 1997): 158-161; Donald Reid, “Indigenous Egyptology: The Decolonization of a Profession?” Journal of the American Oriental Society 105.2 (April-June 1985): 233-246.


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