After three years of challenging work, the completion of the first phase of the Transforming the Egyptian Museum in Cairo Project was announced on Monday.
The museum in Cairo’s Tahrir Square is constantly evolving to compete with other major museums worldwide to fulfil its role as an established cultural and educational institution, Minister of Tourism and Antiquities Ahmed Issa said at a ceremony in Cairo.
The renovation project was a joint collaboration between the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities and the EU with the participation of an Egyptian Scientific Committee and a consortium of five top European museums including the Turin Museum in Italy, the Louvre in Paris, the British Museum in London, the Egyptian Museum in Berlin, and the Rijksmuseum Van Oudheden in the Netherlands.
The Egyptian Museum is the oldest Egyptian antiquities museum in the world, and it has been an icon of ancient Egyptian civilisation for 120 years, the minister said.
The project was an exemplary case of cooperation between Egypt and the EU, in which an Egyptian Committee of specialists and a team from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo had worked together as part of a partnership including five important European museums.
Together, they had established a new strategic vision for the Egyptian Museum and had updated its exhibits in accordance with international standards and in a manner that will enable it to receive the largest possible number of visitors and tourists.
The project is the result of recommendations made for a comprehensive plan to develop the Egyptian Museum and one which provides a strategic framework for its services and activities. It means that the museum could now leave the UN cultural agency UNESCO’s Tentative List of World Heritage to join the World Heritage List.
The enhancement of tourist experiences in museums, archaeological sites, and other destinations in Egypt is an important way of achieving growth in the tourism industry at a rate of between 25 and 30 per cent per year, Issa said, drawing attention to the fact that this is one of the targets of the National Strategy to Develop Tourism in Egypt.
The ministry is forming partnerships with the private sector to stimulate and improve the quality of services presented to museum visitors and to visitors to archaeological sites in Egypt, while ensuring the preservation of their identities and unique characteristics, the Egyptian Museum included, he said.
The project has been a challenging yet rewarding undertaking, Ambassador Christian Berger, head of the EU delegation to Egypt, said during his speech at the ceremony this week. It was the result of extraordinary collaboration between the mother of all Egyptian museums and a consortium of five major European museums, he said.
It had been a complex project because of the scope of the work, including the development of a masterplan for the museum, new displays in five galleries, a detailed study of the building, and updating the information labels for the public.
Berger described the project as “challenging” because of the parallel construction of the Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM) and the repositioning of the Egyptian Museum in terms of ensuring a rewarding experience for visitors.
Despite the Covid-19 pandemic setting back the work, the main parts of the project have been achieved, and the masterplan for the museum has been delivered to the Egyptian authorities, he added. This contains recommendations on the refurbishment of the building and suggestions on how to implement scientific, educational, and digital strategies for the benefit of visitors.
The three-year project began in June 2019, according to Moemen Othman, head of the Museums Sector at the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA). The aim was to redesign the displays in 18 galleries, including the Predynastic and Early Dynastic collection, the Old Kingdom galleries, the Late Period and Graeco-Roman galleries, and the Tanis galleries.
Among its goals was the refurbishment of the older showcases according to new scenography to provide the museum’s visitors with a unique experience and a distinct impression of ancient Egyptian antiquities throughout various periods. In addition, it involved the display and installation of objects using the latest materials for mounting, both inside showcases or where display cases are not used.
The Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities provided new lighting systems in all the galleries that are part of the project in accordance with recommendations from the Conservation Committee of the International Council of Museums (ICOM). It also provided the windows in the western corridor of the museum with “metal curtains” that allow for ventilation as well as reducing the amount of natural light in order to show the aesthetics of the pieces.
As part of the renovation work, the glass in the rooftop windows of the museum was replaced with glass that prevents UV radiation entering the building. The fountain in the open-air display in the museum’s garden has also been renovated. Originally, the fountain’s walls were painted red and light green, while its floor tiles, designed to look like limestone, were decorated with patterns.
The installation of a new lighting system and the introduction of new explanatory labels for the artefacts were also part of the development process. In addition, this saw the renovation of the Daily Life Hall of the museum, which was carried out in collaboration with the Australian Embassy in Cairo.
The positions of some of the more significant pieces in the museum have been changed in order to make them more visible. These pieces include the statues of the kings of the Old Kingdom Dynasty such as Djoser, Senefru, Khufu, Khafre and Menkawre, the Meidum Geese painting, and blue tiles from the Step Pyramid.
The museum also saw the inauguration of a new hall for the treasured collection of the nobles Yuya and Thuya, the grandparents of king Akhenaten.
About 6,500 artefacts have been restored as part of the project. Among the most important are the Old Kingdom walls from the mastaba of Nefermaat and his wife Itet, which were discovered in Meidum in 1892 and date back to the early Fourth Dynasty.
Old Kingdom reliefs from the funerary temple of the Fifth Dynasty king Sahure (about 2458 BCE) have also been restored, along with stone and wooden anthropoid coffins displayed in gallery 49 dating to the Late and the Graeco-Roman periods. The largest number of pieces that have been restored come from Tanis and include more than 2,000 artefacts.
The Egyptian Museum in Cairo has not yet revealed all its secrets, as its basement storage spaces contain tens of thousands of antiquities that are waiting to be rediscovered and showcased to eagerly awaiting visitors. Newly discovered antiquities will also be added to the museum’s collection.
Among the latter is a 16-metre recently discovered Waziri 1 papyrus from the Saqqara Necropolis. The papyrus is now on display in the museum for the first time after more than eight months of restoration and documentation.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 23 February, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly