Funding a New Home for Egypt's Ancient Treasures

Article excerpt

Cairo Museum possesses what is regarded as the world's richest collection of Egyptian antiquities, comprising some 176,000 items. Only 40,000 of them are on display, however. The rest are stacked in the museum's basement areas.

The museum has never been enlarged since it was built at the beginning of the century. Some renovation and modernization work has been carried out, particularly on the electrical installations and the surveillance and alarm systems, and a new room for the royal mummies is now open to the public, after being closed for many years for reasons connected with Islamic law. The main achievement in recent years has probably been the recording of over 135,000 items on CD-ROM - but these are merely drops in the ocean.

On average, a new archaeological site is discovered every month in Egypt. As there are no regional museums, the rooms and corridors of the Cairo Museum are bursting at the seams with more and more artefacts, and it is impossible to observe scientific standards of display. The basement areas are so crammed that it is almost impossible to get into them. Valuable objects are piling up and mouldering down there, doomed to slow degeneration. Security problems and management difficulties further aggravate the situation, while the museum's location on Al Tahrir Square, one of the world's most congested thoroughfares, means that it is threatened by pollution and by vibration from the underground railway that passes beneath it.

The only solution would be to build a spacious new museum, in compliance with modern scientific standards, on a protected site. This would make Egypt the world centre for the study of Egyptian civilizations, would greatly increase tourist revenue, contribute to the development of research and enable management of all the country's museums and sites to be centralized. For archaeology, it would contribute to the development of reliable conservation methods, education and the media would also benefit and, last but not least, it would help in the creation of new jobs and the training of specialists.

In 1992, a plot of land of 117 feddans (about 68 hectares) near Giza and the Saqqara site was allotted to the new museum by presidential decree, but in its five-year budget adopted at the same time the government set aside only 75 million Egyptian pounds (about $20 million) for the project, a sum incommensurate with the total construction cost, then estimated at $700 million.

The Italian government made available two billion lire to finance a feasibility study. An Italo-Egyptian commission of experts was set up and began work in January 1993. Its conclusions were made public three years later: the building of the new museum should proceed in tandem with the restructuring of the present museum; the collections should be divided between the two museums, and the new one should also house a large specialized library, restoration laboratories, a data bank, an information agency, rooms for young visitors, separate rooms for permanent and temporary exhibitions, an auditorium, a publications bureau, photographic laboratories, and so forth. …