Since I only had one last Saturday before I flew home, I decided to visit the Egyptian Museum again. This time I went with the purpose to take my time and really try to absorb the whole experience. As I went through the museum, I was reminded of something I always think of when I visit the Louvre: No one ever pays attention to the building. Of course, the artefacts are the main event, but so often people do not take time to consider how the actual building informs the context of what we are seeing. And this is particularly relevant to the Egyptian Museum.
It’s a beautiful building built at the turn of the 20th century and must be visited by anyone coming to Cairo. It houses in one spot nearly 4000 years of Egyptian history and yet it seems that there is almost no context. There is a perfunctory attempt to classify its holdings by the major periods of Old, Middle, and Late Kingdoms and Ptolemaic and Roman era, but beyond that there is little rhyme or reason to how the artefacts are organized. Even before you have a chance to get through security, you are confronted with a cacophony of the past. If there ever was a place where the weight of history threatened to collapse on itself, this is the place. And I love it. Within the chaos and maelstrom, it is easy to get lost in this history. This is not helped by the sheer absence of descriptions, apart from a few typewritten explanations for some of the more important holdings which were probably created when Nasser broke ground for the Suez Canal.
This is why I say there seems to be little context. Without several doctorates’ worth of Egyptian history experience or the help of any one of the gaggle of tour guides who flock around the ticket window, almost everyone who visits are left to engage with the incomprehensible reality of nameless statues and languages that have been dead longer than most cultures have been alive. But there is context that is easy to miss if you don’t recognize that the actual physical space of the museum is the context.
Once you get past history’s garage sale and focus on the museum itself, you realize that this is the perfect monument to a colonial aesthetic. The British Museum and the Louvre have been described as warehouses of colonialism and I think that is an accurate portrayal. If the British Museum and the Louvre are warehouses of empire, the Egyptian Museum is the ur-warehouse of colonialism. To walk into the Egyptian Museum is to take a step back in time. I already mentioned the lack of information for the visitor to make sense of she is seeing, most likely for the first time outside of a textbook. The museum also lacks other modern conveniences like air conditioning. There are old rotating fans attached to the walls in a not convincing attempt to keep the air cool.
Priceless and irreplaceable pieces are open to the public to be touched. It also obvious that the museum has seen better days since most of the paint is faded and flaking off the walls, although there are efforts being made to restore it. It is not surprising that many of the artefacts are in the process being moved to the state-of-the-art museums that are being built right now.
The result is a sense that you have stumbled on your great grandmother’s attic where most of the art has been crated up, further giving the impression of the museum as warehouse.
And even still, there is a charm and aesthetic beauty that many of the new museums can only wish they could replicate. There is no question that given some of the major disasters to have happened to the world’s heritage over the past year or so it is vital that we do all we can to preserve our shared heritage. It is disconcerting seeing the conditions under which these treasures are housed. But again, there is a vibrancy and vitality that is difficult to describe. One’s imagination is allowed to run rampant.
One could absolutely believe that the wrong move could awaken an ancient mummy’s curse or unleash a plague of locust that devours the countryside. The museum will continue on as an art gallery, at least that was what one of the guides told me as he lamented the new buildings with modern technological features to explain the context of the artefacts will probably put a lot of them out of work because who will need the guides.
Museums have been working long and hard to move away from being warehouses of empire and I think overall that is a good thing, but spare a thought for one artefact that may disappear as curators, historians, academics, and museum admin struggle to tame and organize history – the colonial warehouse of the first great civilization.
Dr. Jason Sager holds a PhD in French History and is currently working on his B. Ed. He is located at the Dover American International School for the month of May 2019.