Al-Ahram Weekly Online   12 - 18 June 2003
Issue No. 642
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Museum of the millennium

An architect from the Republic of Ireland has won the international competition to design a national museum overlooking the Pyramids of Giza. Nevine El-Aref attended last Tuesday's awards ceremony

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The statue of Ramses II in his childhood guarded by Horus; Mrs Mubarak and Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni congratulate the winner; the winning design, created by architect Shih-Fu Peng, is meant to create harmony with the desert landscape
Strains of classical music filled the air of Cairo Museum in Tahrir Square as Mrs Suzanne Mubarak and Culture Minister Farouk Hosni presented awards to the three finalists in the international competition to design the Grand Museum of Egypt.

The winner, architect Shih-Fu Peng of the Dublin firm Heneghan, created a partially underground desert-hugging design with a terraced roofline reflecting the three Pyramids of Giza. Peng's designs will cover an area of approximately 500,000 square metres of land and will include an exhibition space of 38,000 square metres.

"The Grand Museum, to be built on 117 feddans of land immediately to the north of Giza, will at last see the light of day after many years of planning. It is the apex of Egypt's efforts to protect its heritage through the ages," said Mrs Mubarak, who went on to explain that the museum's 130,000 artefacts will span from predynastic times through to the early Roman period.

Hosni described the design of the new museum as having an aesthetic relationship with the Pyramids. The most important object to be housed by the museum will be funerary treasures of the boy- king Tutankhamun and of Hetep-Heres, the mother of Khufu, as well as the marvellous collection of Yuya and Thuya, the grandparents of Akhenaten, objects from the tomb of Sennedjem, the principle artist during the reign of Ramses II, and the royal mummies and treasures of Tanis.

These items are currently on display in various galleries in the over-crowded, 100-year-old Egyptian Museum, which is exposed to pollution and vibrations from Cairo's most crowded traffic zone. "The aim of this new museum is to create the best environment to display these priceless treasures with better lighting and more information in order to do justice to our heritage," Hosni told Al-Ahram Weekly.

The mission of the museum is to preserve, document, conserve, research and exhibit collections, as well as to educate and entertain visitors. The idea of creating a new museum to house the best of Egypt's national treasures arose from an urgent need for exhibition space. After much debate, a site was finally chosen at Giza, where President Hosni Mubarak laid the foundation stone on 4 February 2002.

The Grand Museum will not, however, replace the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square. "It will continue to house 10,000 masterpieces of Pharaonic art and sculpture from the different periods of history," said Farouk Hosni.

Mohamed Ghoneim, head of the executive authority of the project, explained that the specifications on which architects worked had been based on a feasibility study carried out by the Italian government. The architects were instructed to create designs for a luxurious complex that will expand visitors' knowledge and enrich their museum experience through interactive techniques and technologies. A special section for children will be created in order to help youngsters learn about their heritage. Each aspect of the museum is being carefully considered, from the environmental impact of the project to the use of computerised simulations and the selection of objects to be exhibited.

Mohamed Saleh, the director of the Egyptology unit of the museum, described the museum's thematic displays, beginning with one on the physical environment depicting the River Nile, valleys, swamps, deserts and oases. The second theme will be kingship and the state, featuring traditions, building activities and wars in various dynasties. The third will display Pharaonic religion as practiced under the Pharaoh Akhenaten during the Amarna Period. A final display will portray the daily lives of the Ancient Egyptians, their sports, games, music, arts and crafts as well as their cultural and social norms.

The museum will be equipped to cope with a large number of visitors, which experts estimate will reach as many as three million annually. It will also serve as a fully-computerised information centre for Egyptologists. A training centre will also be created where short courses will be given to Egyptologists, museum curators and conservationists. Specialised courses for IT specialists will also be held. In addition, extensive restaurant and shopping facilities are being planned.

In the first phase of the museum design competition, from 7 May to 17 August, 2002, a nine-member jury of architects, Egyptologists and museologists from Egypt, the United Kingdom, Mexico, Italy, France and Korea selected 20 designs out of a total of 1,557 submissions from 83 countries.

In the second phase, from 17 December, 2002 to 17 March, 2003, the competing designs were narrowed down to six contenders. The jury convened from 27 April to 2 May, when submissions from Ireland, Austria and Italy were chosen as final contestants. Finally, on Tuesday, 9 June, the results were announced -- Ireland was the winner.

The first prize of $250,000 went to Peng. Austrian architect Helmut Swiczinsky took second place, receiving $150,000, and the Italian Renato Rizzi came in third and received $100,000.

The construction of the museum will cost $350 million and will be financed through international grants and soft loans, a fund provided by Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, as well as through an international fundraising campaign led by World Bank experts. During the press conference convened to announce the results of the competition, Hosni explained that World Bank President James Wolfensohn visited the site of the new museum two months ago and it is "the largest museum in the world to date". Wolfensohn called for international support for the project and said that the World Bank would be willing to cooperate with the Ministry of Culture in developing financial resources and offering technical expertise.

Meanwhile, the Arab Development Fund has offered an initial grant of $1 million. Hosni said that the museum will be able to recover its construction costs within 12 years if, as he anticipates, 15,000 people visit the museum each day.

The Grand Museum will do far more than merely exhibit artefacts. Through new activities and services employing the latest advances in the field of museology, the museum will contribute to the development of tourism in Egypt and meet the varied tastes and needs of visitors from around the world to promote learning about Ancient Egypt. In these ways, it will boost Egypt's cultural image both nationally and internationally.

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