With the Grand Egyptian Museum, Egypt's much anticipated new antiquities museum set to open its doors to visitors before the year's end, many are wondering what will happen with the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities, which has been one of the country's main tourist attractions.
Located at downtown Cairo's Tahrir Square, the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities is an impressive Beaux-Arts building dating to the turn of the 20th century. Despite its popularity among tourists and Egyptian museum-goers, the museum has been subject to criticism due to multiple shortcomings, not least among which is its cramped display space, which helps cause overcrowding.
This has led some critics to liken it to a "warehouse" for Egyptian treasures. The limited space has also meant that many of the antiquities discovered in recent years have had to be stored in the museum's basement, often exposing them to conservation threats.
Poor acoustics are another of the museum's weaknesses. Although visually appealing, its high ceiling and large atriums have undermined the museum's acoustical environment by magnifying the noise in the exhibition halls, causing an echo and excessive reverberation. Furthermore, reaching the museum is in itself a challenge as visitors have to battle central Cairo's notorious traffic to get there.
In stark contrast, the new state-of-the-art, billion-dollar Grand Egyptian Museum has been built as a multipurpose space. Sitting on a site of approximately 500,000 square meters (around 120 acres), it is being promoted by the media as the world's largest antiquities museum. The building is about 60,000 square meters (645,000 square feet).
Not only is the new museum much bigger than the old museum, it is also better equipped to house and store Egypt's treasures in a safe environment. Adding to its appeal is the impressive array of artifacts it will display: No fewer than 50,000 antiquities are to be showcased in the new facility, according to Minister of Tourism and Antiquities Khaled al-Anany.
Many of the Grand Egyptian Museum's antiquities have been transferred from the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities and other museums across the country. These include Tutankhamun's treasures, long a magnet for tourists visiting the old museum in Tahrir. Popularly known as King Tut and the Boy King, Tutankhamen is perhaps the best known of all the Pharoah kings due to the wealth of treasures found in his tomb but also, partly because of the mystery surrounding his death around 1324 B.C.
Tut died at the age of 19 (reportedly from an infected thigh fracture) 10 years after ascending the throne. His treasures, to be displayed over an area of over 7,000 square meters (75,000 square feet), will include his funerary bed, his famous gilded chariot and solid gold death mask.
More than half of the artifacts in the new museum have not been exhibited before. Tourism officials hope that the facility, with its unrivaled location, modern design and spatial layout, will attract at least 5 million visitors annually to Egypt when it opens later this year, reviving the tourism industry, which was dealt a blow by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Aptly located on the Giza Plateau, the new museum overlooks the Pyramids of Giza and is in close proximity to the new Sphinx International Airport, which opened in early 2019. The short drive from the airport to the Grand Egyptian Museum means that tourists and businessmen coming to Egypt on short trips would have the opportunity to visit both the museum and the pyramids without wasting time being stuck in traffic jams.
Still, efforts are underway to transform the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities and ensure that it gets its fair share of visitors when the larger and more spectacular museum opens. Thanks to two cultural heritage preservation projects funded by the European Union, "The Egyptian Museum is being restored to its original glorious state and will serve as a sustainable educational and cultural center," said Mohamed El Sayyed, supervisor of the Revival of the Egyptian Museum Initiative. The initiative is one of two projects for the museum carried out with guidance and assistance from the Egyptian consulting firm Environmental Quality International.
"Layers of paint have been scraped off the walls, floors and ceilings using medical chisels to reveal the museum's original colors — burgundy and beige," El Sayyed told Al-Monitor. "We found decorative motifs on the walls that we did not know existed," he noted.
"We worked as visitors toured the museum as the facility had to remain open to accommodate tourists," he said.
"Another challenge facing the restoration experts was that the objects had to remain in their place during the entire restoration process," he added.
As part of the project, walking tours and educational activities for children are being organized in and around the museum to raise cultural awareness among local residents of their rich cultural heritage.
There also is the EU-funded Transforming the Egyptian Museum project. It has been developing new labels and banners to give detailed information about artifacts and "enhance the visitor experience," according to curator Ilona Regulski, who is the project coordinator.
"This project is about rethinking the display of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo after many of the objects have been transferred to other museums," the Belgian-born Regulski told Al-Monitor. "We are trying, basically, to do more with less objects."
Earlier this year, the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities lost one of its major attractions when 22 royal mummies that had previously been showcased in the museum's Mummies Gallery were transported in a glamorous parade to their new resting place at the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization in the Fustat area of Cairo. But Regulski said that even without these royal mummies, the older museum "is still well worth visiting as it houses one of the most important collections in the world."
"Having less objects gives us an opportunity to spotlight them, tell interesting stories about them and give them the attention they deserve," she said.
The current phase of the project, carried out in collaboration with a consortium of five prominent European museums (the Louvre, the British Museum, Italy's Turin Museum, Museo Egizio and the Agyptisches Museum and Papyrussammlung of Berlin), focuses on the entrance galleries housing artifacts from the pre-Dynastic (5500 to 3100 B.C.) and early Dynastic periods as well as antiquities from the Old Kingdom (2700 to 2000 B.C.) and the Ptolemaic Dynasty (305 to 30 B.C.).
"We are adding new labels that tell visitors when and how the antiquities were discovered; we are also adding photos of the excavations as well as archival photos from the museum," museum director Sabah Abdel Razek told Al-Monitor.
The new additions are being made in an attempt "to enhance the visitor experience and attract more visitors to the museum," Regulski said.
New signs are also being put up to guide visitors along their museum tour, telling them what they can expect to see in each hall. "The entrance galleries on the left and right represent two vastly different periods of Egyptian history — the Old Kingdom and the Greco-Roman period — yet both galleries showcase massive stone sarcophagi, which shows that despite the many changes throughout Egyptian history, the culture, and in particular the funerary traditions, remained unchanged," Regulski said.
A further notable change that the museum is undergoing is the special attention given to the way of life of the ancient Egyptians. "As part of the transformation, visitors can now expect to see not just colossal statues of the ancient kings and queens, but also smaller statues and papyri depicting those in the lower strata of ancient Egyptian society such as workers, farmers, fishermen and pottery makers," said Heba Abdel Gawad, scientific coordinator at the Turin Museum.
Another highlight is the valuable Tanis collection, which has replaced the Tutankhamen collection after the latter's relocation to the Grand Egyptian Museum. Some say the Tanis royal treasures — discovered by French Egyptologist Pierre Montet in the ancient city of the same name in the Nile Delta, northeast of Cairo in the late 1930s and early 1940s — are as spectacular as Tut's, albeit lesser-known. The Tanis collection includes gold masks, jewelry and solid silver coffins.
"Even after some of the objects have left, the Egyptian Museum is still a treasure house of antiquities; visitors — foreign and Egyptian — will always find something new to see here," Regulski said.
It is no surprise then that the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities has in recent months been added to UNESCO's World Heritage Site Tentative List (a list of sites proposed by countries as being of significant cultural and national heritage value). Regulski and Abdel Razek both said they believe that once the transformation has been completed, the museum will "deservingly" become a World Heritage Site.