Egypt’s Museums: A look into the ‘GEM,’ Part I

On 10 January, almost 20 years since the idea was first conceived, Antiquities Minister Mohamed Ibrahim Ali announced that the third and final phase of the Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM) is finally underway. Based on an open tender, a contract was signed with the Belgian company Besix and the Egyptian company Orascom Construction and Industries to begin construction on the final phase.

The GEM was first conceived to solve obvious problems with the current Egyptian Museum overlooking Tahrir Square. Inaugurated in 1902, the museum's collection has grown to include over 200,000 artifacts. While the museum has acquired a worldwide reputation for being the first and most prestigious in the country, a simple tour through the galleries reflects its dire need for additional exhibition and storage space for its massive collection.

Other equally pertinent issues are those related to access, particularly for Egyptian visitors, as over the years, many of the country’s museums were operated with an eye on tourism rather than local engagement. The state’s decision to locate the GEM on the remote road linking Cairo to Fayoum has only raised more questions about its vision for the new museum.

In Part I of a two-part review of the GEM, Egypt Independent examines concerns over the museum's layout and exhibition design, leaving issues of accessibility for Part II.

Commonly referred to as “the museum of the century,” the state allocated 117 feddans west of the Giza Pyramids for the GEM, and an estimated budget of LE5 billion was drawn up, with the Japanese International Cooperation Agency providing much of it as a soft loan. The project received much international attention. The architects are based in Ireland, the project management companies in the US and Canada, and the curatorial consultants in the UK.

Construction work began in 2004 after the completion of an international architectural competition, and in November 2011, the supervising committee of the GEM announced the completion of the first two phases of the project, as well as the restoration center that includes nine specialized laboratories.

“The plan is for the GEM to become the main museum for ancient Egyptian civilization from the Predynastic to the Greco-Roman period,” says Mohamed Gamal, Supervisor of the Archaeological and Musicological Administration at the Grand Egyptian Museum. “The Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square would then become a museum for the ancient Egyptian art of sculpture.”

The GEM’s collection plans to include 100,000 artifacts in total, carefully selected from the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square as well as several archaeological sites and storage houses around the country. So far, around 10,000 objects have been moved to the new museum’s storage houses and conservation center, says Gamal.

Although moving the objects has slowed down since the revolution began due to the general lack of security, the curatorial team, along with the museum’s staff, are working intensively on the layout and design of the various galleries, Gamal explains.

He told Egypt Independent, “The display is envisioned chronologically, to walk visitors through the 3,000 years of ancient Egyptian civilization." He added that this would be complemented by thematic displays that highlight important themes of the ancient civilization, such as religious beliefs and aspects of social and economic life.

Besides the display of ancient artifacts, other media such as short documentaries would be set up to provide visitors with information about the objects in an attractive and interesting fashion.

“We want to present the information in an interesting, consistent and simple way that visitors from various backgrounds can easily relate to,” explains Gamal.

Unlike the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, the GEM is supposed to have a more public role, serving different groups of local and foreign visitors, specialists and non-specialists. According to the GEM website, it will possess a huge data bank on Egyptian antiquity collections worldwide and an Egyptology library for specialists. A museum for children and galleries for the disabled are also part of the plan.

This, however, should take some time to materialize.

In 2010, former head of the Supreme Council of Antiquities Zahi Hawass said the museum should be open by the end of 2012. Gamal says this is completely unrealistic and unachievable. Though much progress has been achieved, particularly in relation to object display, the completion date was recently announced as August 2015.

“We are working hard to achieve big parts of the project before that date,” Gamal mentions, adding that a suggestion is currently being discussed to partially open the museum with a total of 25,000 pieces before 2015.

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