Al-Ahram Weekly Online   12 - 18 August 2010
Issue No. 1011
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Islam on display

The Museum of Islamic Art is to reopen soon, and Nevine El-Aref has been viewing the high spots

Click to view caption
Clockwise from top: stained glass lamps; the main gate of the museum; Hosni and Hawass inspecting the displays; a painted carpet and tomb stones

The countdown has begun for a reopening of Cairo's Museum of Islamic Art, which has been closed for four years to undergo total refurbishment.

Last Wednesday, Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni and Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) Secretary-General Zahi Hawass made a tour of inspection to check on the progress of the latest restoration phase being carried out at of the Museum of Islamic Art.

The museum has been closed since 2006 for comprehensive rehabilitation not only of the building and interior design but also of the exhibition design and displays.

During the inspection tour, Hosni made some comments on the new lighting system installed inside the museum and on whether some of the displays, might be exhibited by a different means. Hawass said these changes would take only a week to complete.

After the official inauguration of the museum, which will be conducted by President Hosni Mubarak, visitors to the museum will be able to view the museum's spacious galleries which showcase its collection of priceless and fabulous exhibits that include objects in wood, metal, ceramics, glass, rock crystal and textiles from across the Islamic world.

"Restoring the Museum of Islamic Art is an ambitious and challenging task that illustrates Egypt's commitment to preserving one of the country's Islamic institutions, in addition to its Pharaonic and Coptic heritage," Hosni told reporters during the tour. He added that over the last four years renovation work to the tune of LE85 million had been carried out at the museum, with work ongoing up to the present time.

A museum to showcase some of the splendid arts created by Islamic artists and craftsmen was first planned in 1869, even before the establishment of a committee of Arab antiquities dedicated to building a national collection of Islamic art. The Museum of Islamic Art eventually opened in 1881 in the arcades of the mosque of the Fatimid Caliph Al-Hakim with an initial display of 111 objects gathered from mosques and mausoleums across Egypt.

The museum immediately proved popular, and new additions were acquired. Owing to the rapid increase in the size of the collection a new building was constructed in the courtyard of the mosque in 1883 to house what had now become a considerably enlarged museum. In 1899 the government began construction work on the present building, and in 1903 the Islamic Museum opened with a display of 3,154 objects originating from Egypt and other countries.

The museum's name had changed over the years, but in 1952 the museum trustees settled on the institution's present name, the Museum of Islamic Art, in recognition of the contributions of non- Arab Muslims. Since then the museum has become the main repository for the national collection of Islamic art, and, owing to new discoveries, purchases and donations, this now boasts some 100,000 objects.

Nevertheless, over the years the museum was neglected due to lack of funds and lack of cultural interest, and in 1999 preliminary work began to renovate the museum. In all the 100 years or so of its existence the museum had never once been renovated, except for an attempt to clean the institution's walls and renovate the displays in 1983. Attempts at a more comprehensive renovation were frustrated in part by the building's upper floor being occupied by a separate institution, the Dar Al-Kutub Al-Masreya (the Egyptian Library).

In 2003 the Ministry of Culture launched a comprehensive restoration project for the museum in an attempt to reinstate its original function and grandeur. The masterplan for the renovation and the new exhibition design were drawn up by French designer and museographer Adrien Gardère in cooperation with the Islamic Department of the Louvre Museum in Paris, which has advised on the reorganisation of the museum's collections.

According to Iman Abdel-Fattah, an Islamic art historian at the SCA in Cairo and the coordinator of the Islamic Museum project, the renovation masterplan puts the museum's main entrance on Port Said Street, as it originally was, and from there visitors will first encounter an introductory gallery that will present Islamic arts and the Muslim countries and their locations in the world in a mixed display made up of panels, maps and objects from the collection. Visitors will also take a look into the geography of historic Cairo and the early Islamic city of Fustat, the oldest Islamic settlement in Egypt.

The renovated museum is divided into two large wings. The one on the right-hand side will be devoted to the chronological exhibition of Islamic artefacts taken in the main from monuments in historic Cairo, just a few steps away from the museum. This wing will follow a broadly chronological approach in its presentation of the collection, Umayyad, Abbasid, Tulunid, Fatimid, Ayubid, Mameluke and Ottoman, while also including various thematic displays.

"For me this is a site museum," Abdel-Fattah commented, adding that it would serve as an ideal introduction to the magnificent Islamic edifices in neighbouring historic Cairo.

The other, left-hand wing of the museum will display materials from other countries besides Egypt, including calligraphy, manuscripts, ceramics, mosaics, textiles, grave stones, mashrabiya (latticed woodwork), wooden objects, metal and glass vessels, incense burners and caskets, pottery, metalwork and glass lamps dating from various periods in Islamic history. These objects are displayed both according to chronology and according to theme, provenance and material.

The renovated museum has state-of-the art security and lighting systems, as well as a fully- equipped restoration laboratory, a children's museum and a library.

According to Abdel-Fattah, one of the most impressive items to be displayed in the new presentation is a Mameluke water fountain restored by Spanish restorer Eduardo Porta, who was also a member of the restoration team working on the tomb of Nefertari in Luxor's Valley of the Queens.

The fountain, made of semi-precious stones, green onyx and coloured mosaic pieces, was originally bought for the Museum of Islamic Art in 1910 and placed in the museum's garden. Owing to ill-use and faulty restoration work carried out in the 1960s and 1970s, the fountain fell into decay and it is only now being properly restored. "[The fountain] is unique in the world, and it is one of the most important objects in the museum," Porta told Al-Ahram Weekly.

"One challenge that faced Porta and his team from the SCA and the Aga Khan Trust for Culture was how to dismantle the fountain from its cement base safely and transport and relocate it at the restoration lab at the Citadel without further destruction," Abdel-Fattah said. During the dismantling and restoration process, Porta and his team removed almost three tons of material used in earlier attempts to restore the fountain, and corrected the harmful effects of previous attempts at restoration.

Hawass told the Weekly that the overall museum restoration project has achieved three goals. It has brought light into the museum's galleries by enlarging the size of the windows, and it has replaced old display cases with new state-of-the-art ones providing a far better display environment for the artefacts. Third, the project has reorganised the display of the collection and highlighted a successful example of international cooperation, with work being carried out jointly with the Islamic Department of the Louvre in Paris and the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, which helped in the restoration of several larger items.

Inevitably, there have been some delays. When Hosni and Hawass carried out their inspection tour of the museum, they found work that needed to be corrected in order to meet international standards, and this delayed the inauguration until later this month.

However, the newly renovated museum, in addition to having restored buildings and renovated displays, also has new facilities designed to reach out to every kind of public. The renovated Museum of Islamic Art will conduct a curatorial training programme organised by the Friends of the Museum of Islamic Art for the general public, for example, as well as education programmes for children and young adults.

The renovation project has been a lengthy and dedicated one. "The restoration of the Museum of Islamic Art is an extraordinary achievement, executed by some 15 specialists, 20 SCA restorers and 150 workmen," Hawass told the Weekly. He said that all the work was being executed to the highest international standards.

"Now that the Museum of Islamic Art meets the international standards set out by the International Committee of Museums, it is in a position to compete with its counterparts in Europe and America," Hawass said. "Following its reopening, the museum will once again stand as proudly as it ever did."

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