In early April, Egypt inaugurated the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization (NMEC), touted as the biggest national museum in the Middle East and Africa. This gigantic museum stretches over an area of more than 33 acres and houses 50,000 archeological artifacts and art objects dating back to different eras of Egypt’s history.
Beautifully bringing together archeological artifacts from different times, the NMEC tells the story of the Egyptian civilization in an organized chronological order. In their journey in the museum, visitors see the entire archeological collection dating back to the presynaptic times and ancient Egypt, traces of the Ptolemaic and Roman Periods, traces of the Egyptian state under various Islamic kingdoms, and objects of cultural and artistic heritage belonging to Modern Egypt.
International Models of National Museums
No super power or developed country is bereft of at least one national civilization museum. Unlike specific museums, civilization museums are dedicated to displaying the different aspects of cultural, social, political, and economic movements experienced by countries and peoples throughout history. They serve as centers of study and preservation of the tangible and intangible humankind heritage of local communities. Further, civilization museums play an active role in spreading knowledge and information about the human heritage, which in turn, increases the level of awareness in society.
The National Museum of China (NMC) is one of the most striking examples of national museums. China’s civilization, which spanned over 5,000 years, is now brought into one place that combines 1.4 million archeological artifacts and art objects, allowing about 9 million domestic and international tourists a year to see the historical and cultural development of that ancient civilization. Given its scientific and material capacities, the role of NMC goes beyond museum display to enriching the scientific research in areas of archeological exploration and historical and anthropological studies besides documenting and publishing research findings through its multiple channels whether on the internet or through printed periodicals. In addition, the museum carries out permanent preservation and maintenance operations of the archeological artifacts in its storerooms as well as many Chinese heritage sites in general.
On the other side of the globe, the German National Museum (GNM, Germanisches Nationalmuseum) is one of the most important national museums in Europe. This edifice, which is host to 1.3 million art objects, is considered the largest European institution specialized in the study and historiography of the culture and civilization of peoples speaking languages of Germanic origin, whether spoken in Germany or other European countries such as Norway, Sweden, Belgium, and Denmark. Every year, the GNM organizes over 15 permanent and temporary exhibitions, to enable visitors get a complete picture of the development of the culture of the Germanic peoples over ages from the Paleolithic times to the Middle Ages and Modern Era. The GNM also conducts dozens of research projects aimed at documenting, studying, and analyzing the artistic and archeological heritage of the Germanic civilization.
The National Museum of Australia is another significant example of national museums. While Australia is a modern country, it worked on creating a heritage entity that combines the history of the continent of Australia dating back to more than 50,000 years. The museum displays artifacts that simulate the natural history of the continent as well as a variety of indigenous artifacts. It also has a collection of archeological and artistic pieces that brings to life the story of the Australian society since the 18th century and highlight the success of the Australian people in adapting to the continent’s pristine environment, which enabled them make developments in fields of agriculture, industry, mining, and transport. The National Museum of Australia is a new technology museum that uses modern and interactive technologies in museum display, which brings the Australian history and culture to life and makes the experience enjoyable for visitors.
A Struggling Project Is Being Resurrected
The idea of establishing the NMEC was first proposed in 1982 when the UNESCO, at the request of Egypt’s government, launched an international campaign to build two new museums, i.e. the Nubian Museum in Aswan and the NMEC. The Nubian Museum was completed in less than 15 years and was inaugurated in 1997. However, the NMEC faced obstacles that delayed its construction and inauguration. The first of these obstacles arose in the mid-1980s when the government reallocated the land assigned for the museum in Al-Gezira Island to become the headquarters of the new opera house. Since then, the project came to a standstill until 1999 when the government choose a new location for the museum in Al-Fustat historical area.
This wasn’t the only obstacle, though. Several obstacles continued to arise consuming a lot of time. Between 2000 and 2005, it turned out that the museum’s yard has an archeological area, known now as the “Dye House” site, which had Egypt’s Ministry of Culture, conduct an archeological expedition to explore the site. Following that, building operations – which were supposed to be completed in 2012 – were resumed; however, the political unrest that began in early 2011 prevented the completion of the project.
The current political leadership’s coming to power in mid-2014 was a catalyst for the resumption of the project. In 2016, a temporary exhibition hall on an area of 1,000 m2 was opened containing 420 artifacts that tell the history of Egypt’s crafts and industries through ages. This hall gave rise to the partial opening of the museum in early 2017, and since then preparations have been made for the official opening which was made on 3 April.
A New Pattern of Egyptian Museums
Egypt has more than 90 museums, with archeology and history museums accounting for the largest proportion of museums while the remainder apportions between art, science, and military museums (See Figure 1). Generally, Egyptian museums are characterized by focusing on display and quality of collections. Archeology and history museums focus solely on displaying archeological artifacts and historical documents of different eras of Egypt’s history. Art museums, on the other hand, focus on displaying creations of Egypt’s artists in various fields of art including modern arts such as painting, sculpture, and plastic works, and traditional ones such as pottery, garment-making, and carpet weaving.
As for science museums, they focus on displaying all that is related to the scientific specializations. For example, in a natural life museum, a visitor can see terrestrial and aquatic organisms, stuffed animals, and skeletons while in a geology museum, they would see soil samples and rare rocks. Also, giant vehicles and machinery that have been used in Egypt over the past decades gets displayed in museums specializing in railways, civil aviation, agriculture, etc. Finally, war museums focus on displaying the heroics and epics of the Egyptian people over the past two centuries.
Source: Enumeration by the author based on data from the Ministry of Culture, Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, and Ministry of Defense
The idea of the NMEC was different from common museum practices in Egypt. Its philosophy concentrated on displaying Egypt’s tangible and intangible cultural heritage using a variety of ways enabling visitors to understand the historical development of the state and society. Each and every window display in the museum include a special collection of archeological and artistic pieces, making each a unique platform detailing a cultural or historical aspect of Egypt’s history.
To present the history of pieces in window displays, the museum uses a number of state-of-the-art technological tools where interactive displays are seen throughout the museum showing visitors artifacts-related information such as where they were discovered and what they were used for. The NMEC makes available smart apps that can be downloaded on smart phones through which visitors can view all data related to artifacts already on display. In addition, modern audio technology is used allowing tour guides to communicate with tourist groups through electronic headphones, to ensure calmness and reduce noise in exhibition halls.
Moreover, the NMEC hosts a number of facilities to ensure visitors enjoy their time and have a unique experience. The NMEC is the first museum in Egypt to have a theater for art performances, lecture halls, conference rooms, movie theatres, spaces for experiencing and practicing traditional arts and crafts, a number of restaurants and gift shops, and green spaces and parks overlooking the Ain Al-Seirah Lake area.
The competent authorities worked to enhance the role of the museum at the scientific and archeological levels, by providing it with an integrated archeological research center comprising more than 20 laboratories specialized in the maintenance and study of different types of artifacts. Further, the NMEC has one of largest and most highly secured archeological warehouses in Egypt, on a land area of over 7000 m2.
Overall, the launch of the NMEC marks the beginning of a new era for archeology and museums in Egypt. The project is expected to be followed by other museum inaugurations in the short term, including the inauguration of the Grand Egyptian Museum and Egypt’s Capitals Museum. These successive inaugurations may spur the establishment of other museums across Egypt, to have after all a network of modern museums that promote national culture and contribute to attracting local and international tourists.