More and more museums and other institutions worldwide have been putting resources online for people to access during the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic.
At a time when it is advisable to leave the house as little as possible and then only for essential errands, these can constitute necessary reminders of the world outside, perhaps also stimulating a determination to visit or revisit at least some of the institutions concerned when the crisis is over.
Some museums have added to existing offerings on their Websites, while others have designed virtual visits at a time when it is impossible to envisage physical ones. They suggest new ways of thinking about online offerings and go far beyond the basic information on opening hours that used to make up much of museum Websites even a decade or so ago.
Improvements in technology and connection speeds have revolutionised people’s expectations of museum content on the Internet, and the present lockdowns have encouraged more and more people worldwide to explore it.
And even if they cannot be entirely satisfactory substitutes for the experience of physically visiting a museum – who can forget the excitement of standing just feet away from the golden mask of Tutankhamun? – digital resources can be extensions of it.
Under the circumstances of global lockdown, they can also be valuable educational tools and not only for children confined at home during school closures. Adults can find much to engage them during the lockdowns too.
A Weekly survey of selected museum Websites on Egypt and the Arab world suggests that while some institutions have been reaching out further to existing audiences and finding new ways of engaging with new ones, others have been more conservative in the ways they are using their online presence.
British Museum: One institution that has extensive online offerings, even to the extent of making its site a stand-alone destination almost independent of the physical museum, is the British Museum in London.
A note on the Museum’s homepage tells visitors that its collection of 4.5 million objects can be explored online for free, but rather than follow this link perhaps the best way of going on a virtual tour is to do so gallery by gallery at https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/galleries. This allows visitors to select the specific rooms or galleries they are interested in and then be taken directly to these locations.
Anyone who has used Google Street View will be familiar with the technology, and the British Museum has cooperated with Google in its virtual tours. Ancient Egyptian sculpture is on the ground floor of the Museum in Room 2, presumably because of weight, while an overall presentation of its ancient Egyptian holdings, including an extensive collection of mummies, is on the first floor in Rooms 61 to 65. Entry to the British Museum is free, unlike some of the other museums surveyed, and perhaps this explains why almost all of the Museum can also be visited on line.
The Museum has extensive collections from the ancient Middle East, including from ancient Assyria in modern-day Iraq thanks to the pioneering work of British archaeologist Henry Layard in the mid-19th century. This material, including the famous friezes from the Northwest Palace of Ashurnasirpal II (883–859 BCE) at Nimrud and material from Nineveh, can be visited in Rooms 6 to 10. Less weighty items from the ancient Middle East can be visited in rooms upstairs in Room 52 (ancient Iran), 53 (ancient South Arabia), 54 (ancient Anatolia), 55 and 56 (ancient Mesopotamia), and 57 to 59 (the ancient Levant).
Among the recently renovated rooms in the Museum are 42 and 43, which house the Islamic world collection. These rooms were redesigned and refurbished in 2018 in association with the Albukhary Foundation in Malaysia, and they provide a comprehensive presentation of material culture produced from the 7th century to the present day from West Africa to Southeast Asia, taking in important centres in the Arab world, Iran, South and Central Asia and Mughal India. In addition to offering a virtual tour, the Museum Website also contains information about the redesign of the two rooms and the origins of the collection.
The British Museum Website scores highly for its inclusion of absorbing additional material. It highlights specific objects, such as a set of Mameluke ivory panels bearing the name of the sultan al-Malik al-Nasir Muhammad ibn Qalawun (r. 1293–1341 CE) (https://islamicworld.britishmuseum.org/collection/RRM10263/), while also providing details of their provenance (“found/acquired, Egypt… purchased from Rev. William John Loftie, 1880”), something which some museums are sometimes loath to do. It provides video content that must come as a boon to those studying the collections. There is a fascinating short video on the 19th-century excavations carried out by Ernst Herzfeld and Friedrich Sarre at Samarra in Iraq, for example, showing their relation to objects now in the British Museum.
The site contains other content on contemporary art practices in the Arab and Islamic world and on matters of training and conservation. There are videos made at the Jameel House of Traditional Arts in Cairo in partnership with the Prince's Foundation School of Traditional Arts, an initiative of the UK Prince of Wales, and the Cultural Development Fund in Egypt. One of these is on jewellery making, another on pottery, and another on glass-blowing at the Hassan Hodhod workshop in the Northern Cemetery in Cairo.
Hassan Hodhod’s glass workshop is opposite the funerary complex of the Mameluke sultan al-Ashraf Qaytbay (which appears on Egypt’s LE1 note), and some Weekly readers will have memories of visiting it. The sultan’s funerary complex can be clearly seen in the background to the video.
Louvre: Among the pages presenting the Musée du Louvre in Paris on the Museum’s Website is one that tells visitors about its 800-year history from royal fortress to public museum, taking visitors to a YouTube video showing the historical development of the site.
The Louvre’s Website serves mostly as a source of information on the institution, with little of the rich content that distinguishes the British Museum site. Could it be that old habits die hard in the Louvre’s case? Starting its history as a fortress, the Louvre seems to have conceived of its Website in the same light. It gives little away of the richness of the Museum’s contents.
With the exception of one temporary exhibition, it is not possible to take a virtual visit of the Louvre, meaning that it is impossible for visitors to the Museum’s Website to enjoy the kind of experience offered by the British Museum site. The presentation of the Louvre’s departments seems to have been done with professional audiences in mind, rather than with attention paid to the needs of many ordinary visitors. There is a lot of text, but few images.
The Department of Near Eastern Antiquities (https://www.louvre.fr/en/departments/near-eastern-antiquities) highlights 182 objects from the Louvre’s collection, but the presentation is that of a traditional exhibition catalogue relocated onto the Web – the site does not take advantage of the possibilities offered by digital presentation – and the write-ups, with technical descriptions and scholarly bibliographies, seem to be directed mostly at professional audiences. Parents looking for ways of interesting their children in the Louvre’s collections are unlikely to find the resources they need – which is an enormous pity, given their famous richness.
The Department of Egyptian Antiquities (https://www.louvre.fr/en/departments/egyptian-antiquities/overview#tabs) similarly presents valuable information on the history of the collection and scholarly write-ups of 207 highlights. But the site offers few opportunities for visitors to interact with the objects, to see them in three-dimensional space, to rotate them, to walk around them, to watch video presentations of them, unlike on the British Museum site. More promising is the Department of Islamic Art, which in addition to a text explaining the Department and the presentation of highlights (70 this time), also has videos showing the building of the Department’s galleries and decisions on exhibition design (https://www.louvre.fr/en/opening-new-department-islamic-art).
Overall, the Louvre’s site exhibits extraordinary curatorial expertise, with an emphasis on the needs of professional and scholarly audiences. But there is little interaction with the general public.
Metropolitan Museum of Art: Visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York some months ago for the first time in years, the present writer discovered that this institution, which used to be free, has now become rather expensive for out-of-state visitors. But the Website is still free to visit, and it also of course invites, rather than discourages, casual visits.
Arriving at the Metropolitan Museum’s Website, visitors are drawn to the promising words “what’s on line” in the manner of the British Museum’s desire to further relations with a digital public. But the Metropolitan Museum does not offer virtual visits, so visitors are not able to enjoy the objects in gallery space and have to be content instead with looking through photographs and reading write-ups.
It has invested in additional digital content where star exhibits are concerned, however. Every visitor to the Metropolitan Museum will remember the Temple of Dendur, a Ptolemaic temple that once stood on the banks of the Nile south of Aswan and was given to the United States by the Egyptian government in 1965 in recognition of US contributions to the UNESCO International Safeguarding Campaign for the Monuments of Nubia that were threatened by the rising waters of Lake Nasser. This Temple now stands in its own dedicated wing of the Metropolitan Museum, and the Museum’s Website includes a video taking visitors around it (https://www.metmuseum.org/about-the-met/curatorial-departments/egyptian-art/temple-of-dendur-50/related-content)
The Metropolitan Museum has added to its standard presentation of curatorial departments consisting of write-ups of the history of the collections and highlights from them by adding video content. The Islamic Arts Department, for example, redesigned in 2011, has archived video material recording past programming, including debates and lectures, along with more eye-catching material such as a video showing the dismantling of the Museum’s famous “Damascus Room,” a wood-paneled reception room from an 18th-century house in the Syrian capital Damascus, before its re-installation in the redesigned galleries (https://www.metmuseum.org/about-the-met/curatorial-departments/islamic-art/damascus-room).
An additional feature of the site is the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, signaled as a resource for visitors on the institution’s homepage and positioning the site as a whole towards the educational end of the spectrum. While the British Museum site is perhaps especially strong on the experiential and interactive opportunities that a digital presentation can offer, the Louvre is more soberly educational. Perhaps the Metropolitan Museum site comes out somewhere in between, with the Heilbrunn Timeline constituting a kind of online illustrated encyclopaedia of art-historical themes and periods.
The Islamic Art section of the Timeline (https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/essays/#!?dept=Islamic-Art) contains 105 essays on everything from standard chronological categories (like Art of the Mameluke Period) to sometimes intriguingly obscure themes (like Fatimid Jewellery), all illustrated with objects taken from the Museum’s collections. It is signaled on the Metropolitan Museum’s homepage as an ongoing project and flagship resource containing over one thousand essays and counting.
Berlin Museums: The Staatliche Museen zu Berlin-Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz brings together the many museums on Berlin’s Museum Island in the German capital Berlin, one of the world’s pre-eminent cultural districts and soon to be crowned by the nearby Humboldt Forum housed in a reconstruction of the former palace of the Prussian Hohenzollern Dynasty.
These museums include the Neues Museum, restored in 2011 by British architect David Chipperfield in work that drew admiring attention worldwide, the Pergamon Museum, and the Museum of Islamic Art. The Neues Museum houses the Staatliche Museen’s ancient Egyptian collections, while the Pergamon Museum hosts the Museum of Islamic Art, one of the world’s most important.
Among the star exhibits at the Neues Museum, originally built in 1855 to host the Prussian Egyptian and papyrus collection, is a famous bust of the ancient Egyptian queen Nefertiti, along with material from the ancient Meroitic kingdom in Sudan and an extensive collection of ancient Egyptian papyrus. Visitors to its Website (https://www.smb.museum/en/museums-institutions/aegyptisches-museum-und-papyrussammlung/home.html) can opt for virtual tours of the Museum through the Google Arts and Culture App using the same technology as at the British Museum, including an “online audience” with Nefertiti in her room on the Museum’s first floor.
There are other rewarding online exhibits, all available in English, including on the “Cult of the Dead”, “Cat Content” (on the ancient Egyptian cat goddess Bastet), and the monotheistic pharaoh Akhenaten (the “Pharaoh Erased from History”). There are invitations on the Museum site to follow news and access additional materials on Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram.
The Pergamon Museum (https://www.smb.museum/en/museums-institutions/pergamonmuseum/home.html) is named after a massive reconstruction of the Pergamon Altar, a Hellenistic building from Anatolia that was shipped to Berlin in 1879. The south wing of the Museum hosts the Museum of Islamic Art, including a reconstruction of the Ishtar Gate and Processional Way at Babylon, today in southern Iraq, that was built in 575 BCE by order of king Nebuchadnezzar II. It was excavated in the early 20th century by German archaeologist Johann Koldewey, and it can be visited through the Pergamon Museum Website using the Google Arts and Culture App.
The other main exhibit at the Pergamon Museum is a section of the façade of the Ummayad Mshatta Palace 30 km south of the Jordanian capital Amman. It dates to the reign of the Ummayad caliph Al-Walid II (r. 743-744 CE) and was excavated in 1840. The façade was a gift from Ottoman sultan Abdelhamid II to the German emperor Wilhelm II in 1903, and it can be visited online by following the link at https://artsandculture.google.com/partner/pergamonmuseum-staatliche-museen-zu-berlin. Overall, the material on the sites of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin-Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz is of exceptional quality and is available throughout in German and English. Hours of engaging activity are guaranteed for all.
Online Egyptian masterpieces
Many museums worldwide are closed during the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic, but some of their Egyptian masterpieces can be enjoyed online.
The Rosetta Stone: Part of a granite stela produced in 196 BCE, the Rosetta Stone bears a decree concerning the 13-year-old Egyptian king Ptolemy V Epiphanes in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, ancient Egyptian demotic, and ancient Greek. The translation of the decree into ancient Greek on the Stone allowed French scholar Jean-François Champollion to decipher ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs at the beginning of the 19th century.
The Stone was discovered at Rosetta (Rashid) by troops belonging to the invading French army of Napoléon Bonaparte in 1799, and it was surrendered to the British government in 1801 after the French defeat and transferred to the British Museum. It can be viewed at https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/Y_EA24
The Saint Louis Baptismal Basin (Baptistère de Saint Louis): This inlaid brass basin was made in Egypt under Mameluke rule between 1320 and 1340 CE, making it too late to have been brought to France by the French king Saint Louis XI after the 12th Crusade. This saw the defeat of the Crusaders at the Battle of Mansoura in 1250 CE at the hands of armies directed by Ayyubid Egypt’s only female ruler Shajar al-Durr.
Today one of the masterpieces of the Department of Islamic Arts at the Louvre, the Basin was used to baptise French royal children from Louis XIII in 1601 onwards. It was last used in 1856, when Napoléon-Eugène, the son of French emperor Napoléon III, was baptised in it at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. It can be viewed at https://www.louvre.fr/oeuvre-notices/bassin-dit-baptistere-de-saint-louis
Bust of Nefertiti: Now in the collections of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin where it is on display at the magnificently restored Neues Museum, the painted bust of Nefertiti, wife of the ancient Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten, is believed to have been made in 1345 BCE.
It was discovered by a German team led by archaeologist Ludwig Borchardt in 1912. Together with the famous golden mask of the ancient Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun, the bust of Nefertiti is one of the best-known objects from ancient Egypt civilisation and can be viewed as part of a virtual visit at https://artsandculture.google.com/exhibit/an-audience-with-nefertiti/ZQKiSnxV4cRAIw?hl=en
*A version of this article appears in print in the 13 August, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly