What Makes the New National Museum of Egyptian Civilization Special: Exclusive Interview
“We are different, we are unique, we are special, and I bet if you come and don’t like it, I as the head of this authority will give you your money back!” exclaims Dr Ahmed Ghoneim, head of the Authority of the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization (NMEC), when asked about the newly inaugurated museum at Al Fustat, Cairo.
When the NMEC was inaugurated with the arrival of the royal mummies during the Golden Parade held in April 2021, it became apparent that this was more than just a museum in Egypt. From the Predynastic period to the Pharaonic period, followed by the Greco-Roman, Coptic and Islamic periods, up to modern Egypt, the museum encompasses the range of different periods and “civilizations” that have contributed to the rich history of Egypt. ‘Egypt.
In addition to a tour of the Main Hall and the Royal Hall of Mummies, Egyptian Streets spoke with Dr Ghoneim to discuss what makes the museum special, the impact of COVID-19 on it, artifacts on display and much more.
What makes NMEC special compared to many other museums in Egypt?
There are four aspects that make the NMEC different from all the other museums in Egypt and – I would say – the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.
First, the museum includes all the civilizations that have passed through Egypt from 35,000 years ago; through the different families of the Pharaonic era, then through the Greek and Roman eras, the Coptic and Islamic eras, then the contemporary period.
The NMEC takes the visitor on a journey through [all the] civilizations that have passed through Egypt in one room, in an hour. It doesn’t just display coins; there is a story behind the displays, which can be any number of pieces or objects put together to tell you a story about motherhood, cooking, medicine or music, and how [a piece in a certain era] is linked to other epochs that are displayed. There is something unique about this; normally when you go to any museum [in Egypt], it is focused on the Pharaonic era or the Coptic or Islamic era [eras], so having them all in one place and seeing the stories behind them makes it unique.
The second aspect that makes it different are the mummies. Since the mummies were [previously] at the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square, people wonder what is new to having them here. Here they are displayed in a completely different way from how they were displayed before. [When entering the Royal Mummies’ Hall], all the ambiance, the lighting and even the decorations make it feel like stepping into a tomb.
The third aspect is the use of technology. [With younger generations], whenever they were told they went to a museum, they usually went [for a school trip] and I have the impression that it is a compulsory activity. However, we speak the same language that the whole world speaks now, which is technology.
We have interactive and interdisciplinary [tech-driven] ways of dealing with the visitor. There are videos alongside the displayed items that tell why or how an artifact was used as well as its materials, and there are interactive screens where you can easily access more information about it.
You’ll find QR codes when you make your way to the Mummy Room, which you can scan to access information on the 20 Queens and Kings we have here.
Number four, which is the most important, is that we are much more than a museum. The law calls us a museum, but we see ourselves as a cultural center. We consider everything relating to civilization, culture and heritage as our role to promote.
Apart from the Golden Parade, what other efforts do you make to attract people to the museum or to promote it in general?
We intend to [position NMEC as] a journey that you experience in a whole day; it’s not just a museum.
We have a Roman theater, where we hosted harpist Manal Mohy Eddin just before Eid. She was playing Egyptian music in a good atmosphere, with the museum as a backdrop. There is a harp on display inside the museum so that was the message we were trying to send [by hiring a harpist]. We have also hosted the show El Leila El Kebeera (an Egyptian puppet operetta written by Salah Jahin) on three occasions; we don’t intend to sell tickets at this time, we are only hosting it for promotional purposes.
On top of that, we have a lot of entertainment areas here that are still in the works. We are in the process of recruiting people into children’s entertainment [sector]. So a family comes here to spend the day [with] a little museum, a little culture, a little restoration. We have some great, great places to dine here.
And finally, we have what we call a scientific research center like modern laboratories and devices that you can only find at the Louvre in Paris and Abu Dhabi as well as food centers.
Rather, the establishment is a complex combining elements of entertainment, historical and cultural elements, and antiques in one place.
Who do you see as your target audience?
Before coming here, the whole idea of a museum was that it would always target tourists. Now, because of the lockdown and because of the time period we’re living in, I thought that would be a bad strategy to begin with. You can still use virtual tours, but it’s not the same feeling.
I started to think that the right customers for this place aren’t strangers at this point, at least initially; the good customers and visitors are the Egyptians. You may be wondering, “Which Egyptians are we talking about?” We have different social classes, financial capacities and cultural backgrounds, so who are you targeting? “
I’m targeting the entire population, and you can see that when you visit. You will see people from all over Egypt; people from different governorates coming just for a day, old people, and even the very young generations, so it’s [the answer regarding] the museum itself.
When it comes to culture [development], the [establishment] allows us to have different cultural events targeting different [demographics]. A light show for a musician and El Leila El Kebeera would target different tastes, for example.
We are trying to be a cultural center for all Egyptians. Now comes the question you will ask: who can afford to come here. The museum ticket is not expensive for Egyptians, and we have a lot of exemptions. When it comes to cultural activities, we take that into account; some are for business reasons, but we are not a for-profit organization. We are an economic authority, but we have a societal role to play.
You mentioned COVID-19 and how you changed your strategy because of it. Can you tell us more about its impact on the museum?
Let’s start with the Golden Parade and the opening of this museum. A lot of people would say “Why do you have an opening when the whole world is locked?” Who is going to come to you, who are you promoting? “
The confinement did have a big positive effect for us because everyone was staying at home. It took place on a Saturday night, so [people in] the United States and Canada are able to watch. More than 60 broadcasting channels were able to broadcast it. Now comes the thought: “But they are not coming; they just watched it. ‘, however, it stuck in their memory; so every time the lockdown is over, these people will come.
At the same time, we started to organize virtual tours on demand [for organizations], but we take everything necessary [precautions] to guarantee our copyrights [are protected]; we don’t want our museum to be accessible to everyone all the time [at the click of a button]. We are trying different strategies; it’s [our way of] try to cope with the situation.
How important is the location of the museum to Al Fustat?
The location itself is a point of attraction. At first it was a negative point because the area was not renovated and reaching it was a bit difficult. But now, with the effort made by the Egyptian government to renovate the whole area, it has affected us positively. The NMEC has become the center of Al Fustat, Egypt’s first Islamic capital, and the government intends to renovate the entire area, not just the museum. So it benefits us and you can see it everywhere; [renovation] happens and most of the slums are removed.
Reader’s Note: Built by Amr Ibn Al As, the general who led the Muslim conquest of Egypt between AD 639 and AD 646, Al Fustat was the first capital of Egypt under Islamic rule. It is located in Old Cairo.
How many artifacts are stored and how many are on display?
We have almost 50,000 pieces and we can take up to 70,000 or 80,000. The ones on display are 1,600 pieces in the main hall. We have other rooms that we are going to open, one of which will depend more on multimedia and oversee the whole of Cairo.
We will also be opening a temporary exhibition, lasting six months, which can then be replaced by another exhibition. Hopefully these will open in six months.
How do you make the decision to exhibit something?
There is a special committee that makes the decision; it is not an individual decision.
Can you tell us about the challenges of moving artifacts from other museums here, especially mummies?
With mummies, in general there are no big problems because we are part of the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, so we are all one family. The exchange of artifacts is a normal phenomenon. The problems are more related to bureaucracy as the Home Office has to be involved every time a part is transferred. In addition, some parts are extremely heavy, you need to make sure that the crane is able to move them and that the ground is able to carry them; there are more logistical challenges there.
Preoccupation [with moving the mummies] was in the transport phase; the only two big challenges were [road] bumps and [loading the mummies] in cars, which is why they were placed in nitrogen capsules [to ensure their safe arrival].
What is your favorite artifact or historical period in the museum?
A number of pieces. Among them is [the mummy of] Akhenaton, another is the first [prosthetic limb] made in Pharaonic times. These are the two pieces that are close to my heart, I would say.
The part [of the exhibition] which presents Coptic, Jewish and Islamic [eras]. For me it is Egypt, Egypt is not only Coptic, it is not only Islamic, and the Jewish element is there too; it has a message for the whole world.
The National Museum of Egyptian Civilization is located on Al Fustat Road. It is open from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and entrance tickets cost EGP 60 for Egyptians and Arabs (EGP 30 for students) and EGP 200 (about USD 13) for foreigners (EGP 100 (about 6 , 5 USD) for foreign students).
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