Egyptian Museum has big plans despite cash crisis
A burned-out building and uncertain funding stand in the way of expansion
By Garry Shaw. Museums, Issue 250, October 2013
Published online: 24 October 2013
The Egyptian Museum next to Cairo’s Tahrir Square is hoping to turn a potential calamity into an opportunity by increasing both its space and its staffing. The expansion plan is a response to an incident during the revolution of January 2011, when the headquarters of the National Democratic Party (NPD), which is next door to the museum, was set alight. Now structurally unstable and beyond saving, the building poses a threat to the museum’s safety.
Funding for the project is uncertain, however. In the short term, the museum is facing serious financial difficulties partly caused by the country’s ongoing political instability.
Museum of the revolution
The ministry of antiquities, the government department responsible for the Egyptian Museum, is seeking to reclaim land that the museum lost when the political party’s offices were built in 1954. It wants to demolish the NDP building and renovate two further buildings nearby. A new tunnel under the busy road that runs by the river Nile would enable visitors to walk from the riverside to the museum grounds. They would enter a park and have the option of visiting a small museum dedicated to the January 2011 revolution or heading to the Egyptian Museum through a new gateway.
The latest attempt to renovate the area around the museum follows a proposal put forward in 2011 by officials from Cairo’s government, who wanted to demolish the NDP building and build a park in its place. This was opposed by the museum’s then director, Tarek el-Awady, who demanded that the land be returned to the antiquities ministry and that it be used as an open-air museum. In January, Mohamed Ibrahim, Egypt’s head of antiquities, officially asked the then prime minister, Kamal al-Ganzouri, for ownership of the land to be transferred.
The announcement of the expansion plan comes at a time when the institution is facing serious financial difficulties. Under Hosni Mubarak’s regime, the Egyptian Museum’s revenue went to the ministry of culture and very little of it returned to the institution. This left its staff underpaid and the museum in a state of disrepair, with little information available to visitors. Since 2011, when an antiquities ministry independent of the ministry of culture was established, the museum has gained more control over its budget, but its financial situation has worsened because of the country’s political turmoil.
Fall in tourism
Yasmin El Shazly, the museum’s head of collection management, says: “A fall in the number of tourists visiting Egypt and all the pressures put on the [antiquities ministry] to hire more people and solve all the site-looting problems resulted in serious financial problems for the [ministry] in general and the Egyptian Museum in particular—even getting paper and ink became a challenge. It became almost impossible for the staff to get any work done.” Inspired by volunteers who have given their time to the museum, from an IT company offering to create a new website to a woman who has been painting the galleries at her own expense, El Shazly founded the Friends of the Egyptian Museum. “The Egyptian Museum does not have a fundraising department like other museums,” El Shazly says, “which makes a friends group even more vital.”
Despite these good intentions, and faced with such financial constraints, it is difficult to see where large-scale funding for the proposed museum expansion will come from. Nevertheless, some improvements have been made, including building a new shop and cafe. A new lighting system has been installed and some windows repaired, but the galleries remain in urgent need of modernisation.
During the January 2011 revolution, looters broke into the museum through the skylight, while others attacked the gift shop and ticket area. In total, 54 artefacts were officially reported stolen, though several have since been retrieved. A temporary exhibition (until 15 November), displaying the objects restored after the break-in, opened last month.
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