Al-Ahram Weekly Online   4 - 10 May 2006
Issue No. 793
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The museum of eternity

Egypt and Japan sign a cooperation protocol to build the planned Grand Egyptian Museum, Nevine El-Aref reports

Click to view caption
Nazif, Hosni and Abul-Naga examine a model of the museum

It was a scenic evening at the Prince Taz Palace in Mediaeval Cairo, classical music tunes filled the air and a soft spring breeze played with the soaring palm tree branches in the courtyard. Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif, Culture Minister Farouk Hosni and Fayza Abul- Naga, minister of international cooperation, gathered at the palace's Mashrabiya terrace along with scores of Egyptian ministers, government officials and the Japanese ambassador to Egypt to exchange notes on a long-term loan offered by the Japanese government to help in the construction of the Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM). The loan provides $300 million of a total approximate budget projected at $550 million. Abul-Naga told reporters that the loan will be due after a 10-year grace period, to be settled in installments through another 30 years with an interest rate of 1.5 per cent. "According to such an agreement, Japan has granted Egypt 70 per cent of the whole sum," she pointed out, adding that through the last three decades Japan has been a strong supporter of Egypt's development projects. On the morning of the same day, Japan also granted Egypt $40 million to finance the second phase of the Resist Industrial Pollution project. At the end of her speech Abul-Naga expressed her appreciation to the Japanese government for its support to help Egypt built such an important museum, which has been described internationally as "the project of the millennium".

The agreement follows three years of bilateral negotiations between the two countries since Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koisumi promised during talks with President Hosni Mubarak to support such a project. On his part Nazif described the event as a reflection of the strong and profound friendship between Egypt and Japan. He added that construction work can now begin as its main obstacle, a lack of funds, has been overcome.

"It is the museum of eternity," Hosni said, addressing attendees. He explained that the GEM is a gem in the parched Giza desert. It will stand as a beacon to one of the world's first civilisations. Nested between the Giza Pyramids and the modern city of Cairo, at the junction between the dry desert and fertile flood plain, the GEM will be a portal to the past. It is a new edge to the plateau where the layout of its exhibition galleries is organised in a way that allows it to cover the visual lines to the pyramids through a prism of light. Therefore, Hosni said, the GEM's façade will be constructed of translucent alabaster, allowing the daylight to penetrate inside the museum's halls. The museum complex will centre on the Dunal Eye, an area containing the main exhibition spaces around which will spread a network of streets, piazzas and bridges, linking together the museum's many sections.

The museum's design is by Shih-Fu Peng, of the Dublin firm Heneghan, winners of the international architectural competition held in 2003. The museum, says Peng, will link modern Cairo to the ancient Pyramids, and will be partly ringed by a desert wall containing half a million semi-precious stones. The museum's grand staircase will follow a chronological route through the collections, culminating in a view of the Pyramids from the uppermost floor. The collections themselves will be organised thematically, beginning with the physical environment of the Nile valley and the surrounding desert and oases. Other displays will focus on kingship and the state, religious practices during the Amarna period and on the daily lives of the Ancient Egyptians, their sports, games, music, arts and crafts as well as their cultural and social practices. A separate building will house the conservatory, library, mediatheque and other resources. A large piazza will separate the Eye from a series of flexible spaces, including an auditorium that can be converted into three smaller conference rooms, temporary exhibition spaces and commercial areas. Around the Dunal Eye gardens will be landscaped according to the topography of the site, in a pattern of spirals.

Farouk Abdel-Salam, first undersecretary of the culture ministry told Al-Ahram Weekly that the GEM is set to be the world's largest museum -- larger than the Metropolitan Museum in the United States or the Louvre in France. He announced that a board of trustees headed by First Lady Mrs Suzanne Mubarak will be set up in an attempt to put into effect the previously launched fund-raising campaign in Egypt and abroad. A Web site calling Egyptians and foreigners to shoulder part of the burden of bringing the GEM into light will also be launched.

Abdel-Salam pointed out that they aim at collecting $150 million in order to supply the GEM with the state-of-the-art equipment needed. He also stressed that the loan offered is the biggest loan that Japan has offered to Egypt, or to any other country in the Middle East.

On his part Mohamed Ghoneim, head of the GEM Executive Authority, asserted that the project will introduce new job opportunities to no less than 5,000 Egyptians with different levels of education, as well as providing them with technical support through periodical training courses in different museological fields. The museum will be equipped to cope with an estimated three million visitors annually. It will also house a fully-computerised information centre for Egyptologists and a training centre where short courses on Egyptology will be given to museum curators and conservationists. Specialised courses for IT specialists will also be held, and an extensive restaurant and shopping facilities are being planned.

He added that a special section for children will be created in order to help youngsters learn about their heritage. In fact, said Yasser Mansour, coordinator of the project, the museum aims at creating the best environment to display priceless treasures, now exhibited at the crowded Egyptian Museum, with better lighting and more information in order to do justice to Egypt's heritage. 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 Mubarak laid the foundation stone on 4 February 2002. The GEM will not, however, replace the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square altogether, as the latter will continue to house 10,000 masterpieces of Pharaonic art and sculpture from different historical periods.

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