Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
16 - 22 September 1999
Issue No. 447
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Exhibition overdrive

By Tarek Atia

The Met usually closes on Mondays. Last Monday, however, there were limousines idling outside the grand staircase of the museum. The occasion was the preview of a new exhibition, Egyptian Art in the Age of the Pyramids, hyped as "the most spectacular exhibit in a generation", and comprising 250 pieces from 31 museums in 10 countries, spanning the 3rd-6th dynasties.

An Egyptian delegation, headed by Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni, Supreme Council of Antiquities Secretary-General Gaballa Ali Gaballa and Zahi Hawass, director of the Giza Plateau, toured the displays, expressing their admiration for the Met show, just one of three major Egyptian exhibitions taking place in the US this year.

Phillipe de Montebello, the director of the Met, described the Egyptian art on show as displaying "complete confidence". He thanked Egypt for its participation and loan of more than 20 pieces, which he described as expressing the "soul and patrimony" of Egypt.

Archaeologist Abdel-Salam Bakr has been travelling with the collection since 2 August. In addition to his role as guardian of the treasures, Bakr has been helping the Met with the lighting and labels. Egypt is the only country which sends an archaeologist and a restorer with its collections when they travel abroad, Gaballa told Al-Ahram Weekly.

Those organisational skills were in full force Monday night at the Temple of Dendur in the museum's Sackler Wing. This real Nubian temple was given to the US by Egypt after the US government donated $16 million to save the Abu Simbel temples from inundation by the High Dam waters.

On Monday night the temple was the scene of the most elegant party in town, enjoyed by some 700 government officials, trustees of the museum, journalists, and Egypt-lovers.

The Dendur Temple was very dramatically lit, with red lights on the hieroglyphs of the temple walls. The high ceiling and glass walls, which make the area a popular place for New Yorkers to hang out during the day, seemed to come alive.

Mark Linz, director of the American University in Cairo Press, was there. "Spectacular is the word" to describe the party and the exhibit, Linz said. "To bring art to such magnificence -- the Metropolitan knows how to do that."

For the next few months, as visitors walk through the museum's impressive permanent collection of Egyptian art, they will also see a parallel exhibit dedicated to Farouk Hosni's paintings and works by sculptor Adam Henein. The two are being pegged as continuing the great tradition of Egyptian art. The culture minister is very happy with the reactions to his show and is looking forward to the positive press reviews. He was less ecstatic, though, about the red lights on the Dendur Temple which, he said, made it look like "a cabaret".

Zahi Hawass, who has practically become a star in the US following his many TV appearances to talk about the Pyramids and the recent discovery of mummies in Bahariya Oasis, took pride in the room dedicated to his recent find of the dwellings of the pyramid builders.

Gaballa told the Weekly that because many museums from around the world have lots of Egyptian antiquities from all periods, they can get together and share, organising shows with just the things they have. "We could have said, 'No, we're not going to participate'. It wouldn't matter; they'd still open the exhibition with 225 pieces instead of 250. You're either with them or you're not. They'll do it anyway. So you do it willingly, to benefit and learn and teach. We're going to Boston with 27 pieces from Egypt," Gaballa said, referring to a Boston Museum of Fine Arts exhibition on the Amarna period that begins in mid-November.

About antiquities, Gaballa says, "It's a self-replenishing resource. The question is how to invest in it."

Samir Khalil, president of Misr Travel International in New York, seems happy with the strategy so far. He says it definitely gives tourism a push. "The Met has 60,000 members; we organise trips for them, plus the press coverage. It's amazing publicity for Egypt. We see the results immediately. People who say we have to keep the antiquities at home are wrong. We have to be careful with our heritage, of course, but at the same time we have to use it well."

The Met's gift shop is certainly thinking in this direction. In addition to the catalogue, CDs of ambient Egyptian music, posters, pop-up post cards in the shape of temples and hippos and children's games with Egyptian themes, there's even a curious blue Ancient Egyptian hippo stuffed doll named William. "We usually make $12,000 on a good day but we're expecting much more than that for this one," says Marina, who works at the shop.

"It's a very attractive aesthetic," says documentary film-maker Gordon Hyatt, who is currently working on a film called Napoleon in Egypt. "We've seen it in our jewellery and we recognise it as the root of our civilization."

Balsam, a security guard originally from Russia, who was stationed near the Sixth Dynasty Hall, was very impressed with the exhibition. "Standing here, I am surrounded by the aura of the people who created these amazing monuments with such simple tools," he said in awe. "I think they were more advanced than us. I've been to Mexico to visit the pyramids there. I like old stuff. Maybe next year I'll go to Egypt."

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