To mark the 116th anniversary of the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square, the Ministry of Antiquities organised what, to me, was a landmark event that serves to demarcate the dividing line between this venerable establishment’s over a century-long past and its future as a truly modern museum, employing the latest techniques to display a unique collection of antiquities that can be seen nowhere else. We are speaking of a rebirth of a major historic museum.
For some time, news of the Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM), due to open in 2020, overshadowed the old museum and the question of its fate. GEM will be the largest museum in the world.
It will house an incredibly huge collection of items, unavailable elsewhere and that will include the 3,500-piece Tutankhamen exhibit which has enthralled the world since its discovery in 1922 by the British archaeologist Howard Carter. But what will become of the old museum in Downtown Cairo? Who will visit it after GEM opens?
I imagine that precisely such thoughts had occurred to former minister of culture Farouk Hosni who authored the idea of GEM. He once told me that he thought of dedicating the old museum to the Tutankhamen collection and GEM to the rest.
However, he soon changed his mind, thinking it would not be right to deprive GEM of one of the most important collections of antiquities of ancient Egypt.
So, since it is precisely the collection from the reign of the child king, King Tut, whose historical importance pales next to Khufu (Cheops), Ramses II, Hatshepsut, Ahmose and Akhenaten, that will be missing from the old museum, our energetic Minister of Antiquities Khaled El-Enani decided to dedicate the old museum to a unique collection of its own: the treasures of the nobles Yuya and Tuya, the parents of Queen Tiye, the wife of Amenhotep III and mother of Akhenaten.
As appears from the collection, the noble couple were important in their own right in their times. They were buried in the Valley of the Kings alongside the major pharaohs of ancient Egypt.
Their tomb was discovered in 1904. At the time, a team of British archaeologists were working on a couple of tombs from the reign of Ramses III and one of them, James E Quibell, drew attention to a mound of ruins that had emerged between the two tombs in the course of the digging.
After clearing away some more sand, he discovered the tomb of Yuya and Tuya. It had been robbed a couple of times in remote antiquity, but it had since been resealed, buried beneath debris and forgotten until the early 20th century.
The collection contains two gold masks, one of Yuya and the other of Tuya, that remind us of the famous mask of Tutankhamen.
They were made of gilded cartonnage and inlaid with precious stones. It also features Yuya’s war chariot, which reminds us of the gilded chariot of King Tut, as well as the splendid funerary furniture — gilded chairs, beds and jewellery boxes, all inlaid with precious stones, ivory and ebony — and alabaster and coloured limestone jars and other vessels.
Of particular importance in the collection are the mummies of Yuya and Tuya which, much to the discoverers’ amazement, were found in excellent condition.
They had been untouched by the grave-robbers who would generally claw open mummies in the search for any hidden pieces of gold or precious stones. Also found intact, in addition to the gilded masks, were the outer and inner coffins of the noble couple, the canopic jars that stored their viscera, and an array of small ushabti figurines.
One of the most splendid artefacts to be exhibited for the first time is the Yuya papyrus. Restored and pieced together by the museum’s experts, it is 20 metres long — the longest papyrus ever to be displayed in Egypt.
The real value of the Yuya and Tuya collection resides in the beauty, delicacy and fine craftsmanship of its 214 pieces.
These artefacts are among the finest items produced during the 18th Dynasty which is famed for its immense progress in the realms of politics, architecture and the arts.
Many of these items had remained in storage in the basement of the museum for decades since the discovery of the Tutankhamen treasures, which occupied the main exhibit hall on the second floor. This large space has now been turned over to the new Yuya and Tuya collection.
In a sense, therefore, GEM has liberated a large number of artefacts that had been kept in hiding in the Egyptian Museum’s storerooms and that will be displayed to the public for the first time, either in the new museum or in the old.
Otherwise put, the creation of GEM will breathe new life into the old museum which had become more of an antiquities warehouse than a properly organised museum using modern display methods to showcase its acquisitions.
Just to illustrate, in Berlin the bust of Nefertiti has a room to herself, enabling it to shine in all its glory. Such a luxury would never be possible in the Egyptian Museum with its 120,000 pieces, which make it the largest collection of Egyptian antiquities in the world.
The opening of GEM, therefore, will mark the rebirth of the museum founded by Auguste Mariette, the first director of antiquities in Egypt, in 1858 and officially inaugurated in 1902 in order to, as he said, “safeguard the antiquities of Egypt from plunder and destruction.”
The museum, indeed, performed this function. It preserved these treasures and became a storehouse for them. But now that thousands of items have been transferred to GEM, the display methods in the old museum can change.
Development works towards this end are currently in progress with the energetic collaboration of some of the most important museums in the world, such as the British Museum, the Louvre and antiquities museums in Berlin, Leiden and Turin. T
his enables us to look forward to the new opening of the modernised old museum as much as we are looking forward to the opening of GEM.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 29 November, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Egyptian Museum reborn