Dig days: The Islamic Museum
By Zahi Hawass
If anyone were to ever ask me the question, "What is the most difficult project that you have had to work on as the secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities?" I would have to answer, "The Islamic Museum." This is the story.
The Islamic Museum in Cairo, now on Port Said Street, was first opened in the Al-Hakim Mosque in 1881 with 111 objects on display. When I began my current job in 2002, the Port Said Street museum was closed and the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) intended this lovely neo-Mamluk building to be used to display Islamic art and a building in the Citadel to be used to display architectural objects. I thought that this division was counterintuitive. How would it be possible truly to distinguish between art and architecture? The two complement each other. I decided that the existing museum should continue to display both and that we should find an alternative use for the building in the Citadel.
When I had visited the Islamic Museum years earlier, when I was still the director-general of antiquities at the Giza Pyramids, a job I held from 1987 to 1997, I discovered that it was not up to the standard of other museums and few tourists visited it because there were no parking facilities. I asked myself, "How can it be that these beautiful objects are displayed in such a primitive way like this?" The museum contained unique artefacts from different periods of Islamic history and from all over the Islamic world.
It was with this in mind that we began to restore the museum. We contracted a company to do the work and began to consult Ali Abdel-Rahman, a great scientist on soil mechanics, who looked into the physical stability of the building.
I cannot express to you enough the difficulties that we encountered. The first big problem that we needed to accommodate was that another institution, the Dar Al-Kutub Al-Masriya (the Egyptian National Library), was located on the floor above the Islamic Museum and shared the basement with it. We discovered a problem with this basement and tried to fix it, but as soon as we did, another problem came up. It was as if the Islamic Museum was an old man. No sooner had the physician been called in to perform an operation on the old man's stomach, another problem with his kidneys would be found. We fought and fought until we had resolved each of those problems in turn, tackling especially the instability of the museum's floor.
Then came the next issue, that of how to make the museum beautiful. I approached my friend Louis Monreal, the secretary-general of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, which was founded in 1988 in Geneva, Switzerland, to support projects in the Islamic world, especially in Asia and Africa, and Prince Karim. Louis and Prince Karim agreed to support the museum and approved of an expert museum designer from France, Adrien Gardère. This was a great decision and reflected a wonderful cooperation between our team and the Aga Khan Trust. Gardère came to do the work, contacted the Louvre Museum in Paris and received support from the Islamic Department there in drawing up the plan for the renovation work and writing the new labels for the objects on display.
Thus began seven years of work. Iman Abdel-Fattah was my right hand on the project, providing me with daily updates. Every month I would also hold a meeting to review the plan's progress and try to resolve any problems that came up, especially those conflicts between us and the Dar Al-Kutub. We began to buy great display cases from Italy and restore all the objects. One of the biggest challenges was how to restore the Mamluk-period fountain bought by the museum in 1910 and placed in the garden. It was difficult for anyone to safely dismantle it, but thanks to the wonderful work of the Spanish restorer Eduardo Porta, who was also recommended by my friend Louis and who worked on the tomb of Nefertari in the Valley of the Queens, it too was taken to the restoration laboratory in the Citadel.
The next surprise problem was that Gardère chose white paint to be the colour of the museum's walls. Farouk Hosni, the minister of culture and himself a fine artist by training, suggested that dark grey would in fact be the perfect colour. We gave this some consideration, but worried that repainting the museum would cost too much in terms of both time and money. The minister gave me a simple choice: "This is just my opinion, I am an artist and my job is colours, but it is up to you to choose the colour, or not." I did decide to change the colour, but was afraid it would not work. However, when the repainting was finished I sent some friends to take a look before I did, and then went myself and could not believe the beauty of it. The minister was right and now the museum is both incredible and beautiful. It turned out that although white paint may be a good background for fine art paintings, it is not so good for displays of archaeological objects.
Now, after an LE58 million refit and with more than 2,000 objects on display, the Museum of Islamic Art is going to be one of the most beautiful museums in the world. It is ready to be opened to the public and awaits its impending rededication by President Hosni Mubarak.