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Grand Egyptian Museum project moves forward

  • Last Updated: August 20. 2009 12:30AM UAE / August 19. 2009 8:30PM GMT

CAIRO // When Egyptians completed the Giza Pyramids in 2490 BC, the monuments were the largest man-made structures in the world. Now, more than 4,000 years later, Egyptians say the time is right to add another fitting flourish to the Giza Plateau: the world’s largest museum.

The government hopes that the Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM), which culture officials say will be finished by 2012 at a cost of about US$592 million (Dh2.2bn), will improve the way Egypt’s celebrated patrimony is preserved and displayed to millions of visitors from around the world.

“The need came to have such a building in order to protect and secure our artefacts and display them in the proper way,” said Mohammed Ghoneim, the director of the project.

Mr Ghoneim said the new museum will ease the burden on the old Egyptian Museum, which was built in 1900 to accommodate about 15,000 artefacts and 500 tourists each day. It now takes in about 10,000 visitors each day and holds some 176,000 artefacts.

“You feel that it’s crowded, many artefacts are in storage. Many artefacts are being displayed not in the scientific way. It’s a small space to accommodate even the recent discoveries,” said Mr Ghoneim.

While such conditions are uncomfortable for visitors, they are untenable for the priceless relics, more and more of which are discovered each year. In the century since the first Egyptian Museum was built, Egypt has struggled to match its conservation efforts with the pace of discovery.

These days, curators at the old Egyptian Museum are doing as much digging in their basement as archaeologists do in the field. The extent of the managerial oversight at the museum first became clear in 2004, when 38 pieces of jewellery were reported to have disappeared from the museum’s stockroom. Ensuing investigations revealed that most of the objects had neither been catalogued nor examined since they were discovered, some as long ago as early last century.

Mr Ghoneim hopes that a new world-class conservation centre, which has already been completed alongside the site of the proposed museum, will help archaeologists organise and maintain the more than 100,000 objects that culture ministry officials say will rotate through the new museum, including the 5,000-object King Tutankhamen Collection. The plan will also add hundreds of items that have never before been seen by the public, said Nadia Lokma, the general director of conservation for the Supreme Council of Antiquities.

“There are beautiful coffins that no one has seen and now they can be seen. People will love that,” said Ms Lokma, who helped to plan the 14,000 sq metre conservation centre, which will be linked to the museum through an underground passageway. “For me, it’s always been my dream to have a huge conservation centre with all of the equipment, something that all conservators dream of.”

Unlike the current Egyptian Museum, the new facility will be sealed from outdoor elements – a precaution that Ms Lokma said will halt the deterioration of the ancient objects.

The $32m centre also allows natural light to enter the building, reducing the need for harsh artificial lighting that can damage the items. The council is in the process of moving small artefacts into the new facility from the old Egyptian Museum, which will be converted into a pharaonic art museum for some of Egypt’s finer antiquities.

But alongside conservation, Mr Ghoneim and other culture officials hope the new museum will add value to the educational experience of visiting the pyramids – an element that is lacking at many Egyptian historical sites.

The Giza Pyramids, for example, which sit on a sand-swept bluff overlooking the Nile Valley, have been left much the way they were built, without even a sign or explanatory placard in sight. The Egyptian Museum, meanwhile, bears a closer resemblance to a crowded, un-air conditioned warehouse than an educational space. Many of the museum’s greatest treasures are arranged pell-mell on shelves or even the floor. Inscriptions and explanations for the exhibits are few and far between.

But come 2012, visitors will be able to see the pyramids from inside the museum, which will rest 2.5km from the necropolis. The view, planners hope, will effect a seamless connection between the pharaoh’s greatest monuments and the museum’s display of smaller artefacts and objets d’art that bring the pharaonic experience to life.

The design evokes an architectural bridge between the ancient pyramids on one side and Cairo’s urban cityscape on the other. The floor plan guides visitors from the entrance, which faces Egypt’s capital, to a grand staircase that ends with a view of the three Giza Pyramids in the distance through a 600 sq m translucent stone wall.

The GEM exhibits are classified into five main themes, or “streams”, of ancient Egyptian life: “Land of Egypt” (an outdoor garden featuring pharaonic-era agriculture), “Kingship and State”, “Religion and Afterlife”, “Man, Society and Work”, and “Scribes and Learning”. The exhibits and artefacts for each will be arranged chronologically along parallel exhibition halls emanating from the main gallery at the top of the grand staircase.

The final design, which won a competition of nearly 1,600 entries in 2003, came from the Ireland-based Heneghan Peng Architects. In their renderings of the project, the museum and its grounds are arranged into a low-rise triangle shape jutting from the edge of a low cliff. The museum itself is built out of alternating opaque and translucent stones, which again form triangles in the building’s walls.

Tucked into the architecture, the museum campus will offer a learning centre for children, a 1,000-seat conference centre, an Imax theatre and some six different parks and gardens for displaying ancient Egyptian agriculture. A planned “school of museumology” will act as a training centre for aspiring museum curators, conservationists and administrators.

And yet, only one-third of the museum’s 50 hectares will be occupied by commercial properties, said Nora Ebeid, the financial resources development manager for GEM.

While the on-site commerce will contribute to the museum’s operations and maintenance, project planners are looking outward for the majority of their funding.

Last year, GEM secured $300m from the Japan Bank for International Co-operation in the form of a soft loan, payable over 30 years at low interest. The Egyptian government, meanwhile, will pitch in $147m, while the rest of the about $150m is expected to come from private donors, foreign companies and international organisations.

In short, the museum is an expensive project. But given the importance of tourism to the Egyptian economy – the industry earns Egypt nearly 12 per cent of its GDP and employs more than 12 per cent of its workers – it is an investment that Ms Ebeid said will pay off in the long-run.

The museum itself will directly employ a staff of about 500 people along with about 1,300 support jobs, such as maintenance and cleaning. But the cash-carrying tourists will contribute to “downstream” business such as outside hotels, restaurants and transportation – an add-on benefit Ms Ebeid expects to generate about 10,000 employment opportunities outside the museum.

For now, the Egyptian government is preparing to launch a tender for a construction firm before the end of the year – almost 17 years after a presidential decree allocated land for the project. When asked why the culture ministry chose the present moment to replace the old Egyptian Museum, which was built more than 100 years ago, Mr Ghoneim did not demure.

“I prefer that your question be why didn’t you do it before, not now,” he said. “I mean, it’s late to do this. It should have been done before.”

For a picture gallery showing the museum’s progress, visit

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