Ancient artefacts crumble in Cairo's central museum

The Egyptian Museum, located in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, displays the world’s largest collection of ancient Egyptian antiquities. Despite its vast wealth, worsening conditions at the museum are having a detrimental impact on the ancient artefacts it seeks to protect.

Ancient artefacts crumble in Cairo's central museum
Ancient Egyptian artefacts deteriorate in Cairo’s central museum due to poor conditions, lack of resources; experts advise Egyptians to protect antiquities before damage is irreparable [Credit: Ahram Online]
"Look at the Fayoum portraits, and the mummies exhibited, they are falling apart before our own eyes. They need restoration, but regretfully we don't have enough money to do anything," said Wafaa Habib, director of Greek and Roman Antiquities at the museum.

Key points of concern

Although the museum galleries are high-ceilinged and spacious, the interior decoration and standards of hygiene are poor. The diffused glass panels on the ceiling and the first floor windows are covered in dirt, and the lighting is dim.

Visitor signs are printed on A4 paper and carelessly taped to the tatty, half-painted walls. Despite the presence of cleaning staff, staircases and display cabinets are covered with dust. Labels and information signs are insignificant and often blank.

"The exhibition of King Tutankhamun has travelled around the world, yet the museum provides no information, there must be some factual information somewhere," said a museum curator, who preferred to remain anonymous due to fears of any political repercussions.

Consequently, visitors must hire a guide to learn anything about the exhibits. Most reviews on websites, such as TripAdvisor, highlight this requirement. Notably, the museum does not have a website, which would be a useful information resource. Hence, visitors are unable to attain vital information on the exhibits prior to visiting.

Museum employees said although an Egyptian company offered to create a new website for free, its inability to connect with officials in the Ministry of State for Antiquities (MSA) has stalled the process. The lack of an IT expert at the museum is another prohibiting factor.

Bureaucracy and mismanagement

Other issues raised by museum staff concerns museum bureaucracy and poor management. Since the revolution, the museum’s director, according to staff, has changed four times and is usually in office for about four to six months. At the moment there are three directors. "We are not happy about the continuous change of management. Although there are now three directors, progress is minimal," explained Habib.

The current directors are Said Amer, head director, Lotfy Abdel-Hamid, an antiquities expert, and Mohamed Ali, head of general management and security.

Yasmine El-Shazly, head of Registration Collection Management and Documentation (RCMD) department, also drew attention to the managerial instability and frequent ministerial name changes from the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) to Ministry of State for Antiquities. El-Shazly pointed out that fear and paranoia of possible legal repercussions prevent signing requests, stifling any developments. Another key concern following the revolution is poor funding and corruption, which according to most employees has worsened.

"The manner in which the artefacts are currently displayed is damaging them. We don't have money for the essential repair and conservation work," said Habib, elaborating that necessary repairs need to be made; the mummies must be delicately removed from the showcases and repaired by the conservation department.

According to Habib, specific temperatures, special light and ultra violet glass is necessary to conserve the artefacts as sunlight is also damaging. The fragmenting of famous portraits from Sheikh Abada area in Al-Menia further demonstrates the deprivation, as does Habib’s mere request for a sum of LE4,000 ($573) to make urgent wood repairs. The portrait dates to the Roman Period (2nd century AD) and it was excavated by M. Gayet in 1899. The material is encaustic on wood. Museum staff also stressed that the lack of resource is as rudimentary as basic office supplies, such as paper, ink and printing equipment.

"The main problem remains – corruption – as we do not receive allocated funds from donors, such as United Nation for Education Science and Culture Organisation (UNESCO) and Japan’s International Cooperation Agency (JICA)," suggested Amira Ezzet from the restoration conservation department, highlighting her and fellow colleagues' aspiration to establish an NGO to improve conditions.

In this regard, a "Friends" group is said to be underway, according to El-Shazly. This organisation is an NGO under the umbrella of Nahdet El-Mahrousa and will handle a variety of issues ranging from funding, sponsorship, hiring experts and staff empowerment. "The current lack of governmental resources after the revolution, reinforces the necessity to establish 'friends' groups, following in the footsteps of all museums around the world," affirmed El-Shazly. The group also aims to develop educational spheres in the museum that target tourists as well as Egyptians, who are too often sidelined.

Discrimination towards Egyptians is another obstacle that requires attention, suggested the RCMD head. However, she concurrently admitted that prejudice has improved since the revolution, prior to when men wearing galabayas ‘cotton dress’ were not allowed.

Working conditions

In addition to the poor museum environment, the work conditions are not conducive to productivity. Most of the museum employees do not have uniforms (except the cleaning staff who have one change of clothes) and complain of being over worked and underpaid.

"I am not happy with my job, I work six days a week and I am paid LE700 ($100) per month and only have one change of uniform," stated one of the female cleaners. To safeguard her position, the cleaner asked to remain anonymous due to the museum security’s questioning reaction to her discussion with Ahram Online.

Furthermore, lack of motivation and purpose was a common complaint expressed by most employees. The museum guards in charge of protecting the artefacts often juggle two jobs because of low government wages, thus often appearing lethargic and unmotivated. Mohamed Atta, a young civilian dressed security guard stressed that although internal conditions have deteriorated, the security remains strong. However, the disappearance of museum objects since the revolution is another worrying phenomenon.

"Some bronze statues were returned just a month ago," explained Ahmed Melawany, a 28-year-old police officer of the Tourism and Antiquities Police. Despite such mishaps, which most employees deny is a regular occurrence, the museum security system is applauded for successfully safeguarding the museum’s priceless antiquities.

Another major point of concern relates to the longstanding closure of the museum shop, which has not been in operation for the past two and a half years. Museum staff said this is a huge loss of revenue since at least approximately 90,000 tourists and locals frequent the museum each month. Its closure has also caused many people to lose their jobs since some of the museum products were locally produced.

Home to the world’s leading collection of ancient Egyptian artefacts, one of Cairo’s principal tourist attractions, the Egyptian museum’s decrepit conditions fail to reflect the magnitude of its contents.

With the new museum, located in Giza plateau, speculated to be completed within 3 years, experts anxiously contemplate the longstanding impact of the current inferior environment on the artefacts. The suppressed silence and fear of museum workers, often displayed by their unwillingness to publically voice concerns, is additionally worrisome.

In view of the current state of affairs within the museum, experts advise Egyptians to protect their heritage before the damage is irreparable or transferred into foreign hands as has occurred in the past. "Civil society’s role cannot be underestimated," stressed El-Shazly.

The initial collection of pharaonic antiquities were compiled during the late 19th century in Cairo's Boulaq district by Auguste Mariette. In 1891, they were relocated to the palace of Ismail Pasha in Giza and later moved in 1902 to their current home in Cairo's Tahrir Square; the first museum structure ever to be built. The Egyptian Museum was designed by Marcel Dourgnon in a Neo-classical style hosting 107 halls filled with relics from the prehistoric, Roman and predominantly pharaonic era. Approximately 160,000 items are exhibited covering 5,000 years of Egypt’s history.

Author: Sarah El-Rashidi | Source: Ahram Online [May 23, 2013]

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