Friday,24 May, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1328, (19 - 25 January 2017)
Friday,24 May, 2019
Issue 1328, (19 - 25 January 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Islamic Museum to reopen

The Museum of Islamic Art, damaged by a car bomb in 2014, will soon once again light up the Bab Al-Khalq district of downtown Cairo, reports Nevine El-Aref

Islamic Museum
Islamic Museum

On Port Said Street in the Bab Al-Khalq neighbourhood of downtown Cairo stands the honey-coloured edifice of the Museum of Islamic Art (MIA) with its neo-Mameluke architecture and luxurious decorated façade.

In January 2014 a car bomb aimed at the adjacent Cairo Security Directorate blew a six-metre crater in Port Said Street while also ripping into the façade of the MIA building whose second floor is shared by the National Library and Archives.

After two years of hard restoration and rehabilitation work, the museum has been renewed, and as Al-Ahram Weekly went to press President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi was scheduled to officially re-inaugurate the museum.

The restoration work started in 2015 when the United Arab Emirates responded to a call for funding for the campaign, making a grant of LE50 million and working hard in collaboration with the Ministry of Antiquities to rescue the MIA and its priceless collection that reflects the glory of Islamic civilisation.

 “We are thankful to the UAE for its support in bringing the museum back to its former glory in collaboration with Egyptian and foreign experts,” Minister of Antiquities Khaled Al-Enany told the Weekly, adding that the UN cultural agency UNESCO had contributed $100,000 for the restoration of the museum’s laboratories.

Other countries, NGOs and the private sector had provided additional support, he said. The Italian government had given €800,000 to buy new showcases and provide training for the museum’s curators, the American Research Centre in Cairo in collaboration with the Swiss government had contributed LE1 million to restore the museum’s façade, and the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History and the Metropolitan Museum in New York, together with the German and Austrian authorities, had helped train museum curators and restorers.

“These contributions highlight Egypt’s strong and deep friendship with many countries,” Al-Enani said, expressing his happiness at the official re-opening of the MIA. “The restoration and re-inauguration of the MIA embodies Egypt’s victory against terrorism and its capability and willingness to repair what terrorism has damaged as well as stand against any terrorist attempts against its heritage,” he said.

Elham Salah, head of the Museums Sector at the Ministry of Antiquities, told the Weekly that the museum’s façade, building and halls had been restored and new state-of-the-art security and lighting systems installed. All the mountings required to erect large artefacts had been replaced and new showcases put in their display positions.

The collection had been rearranged the way it was before the bombing, with the exception of the souvenir hall, previously located at the centre of the museum, she said. This has now been relocated outside the museum at the end of the visitor route.

A hall displaying Islamic coins and weapons has been inserted in the exhibition design as well as another hall for Islamic manuscripts. One hall exhibits the daily lives of people down through the Islamic period, along with musical instruments and children’s toys.

“With the addition of these objects the MIA’s collection has increased to 5,000 artefacts from the 1,874 items that had previously been on display,” Salah said, adding that among the items were 2,000 coins.

MIA director Ahmed Al-Shoki said the original plan had been to re-display the MIA collection according to its previous exhibition design, but that a few changes had been made in order to introduce a new display concept to MIA visitors.

A study had been carried out by the museum’s curators to see if anything could be improved in the MIA’s original exhibition design. As a result, the gift shop has been relocated and in its place has come a hall for Islamic weapons and coins.

All the open showcases had been closed, Al-Shoki said, to prevent dust affecting the artefacts. 14 new showcases have been installed and a new display concept has been designed for the museum’s entrance hall to reflect the contributions of Islamic civilisation.

The entrance hall now had five showcases, Al-Shoki explained, displaying objects reflecting main elements that contributed to the birth of Islamic civilisation. In the middle is a showcase displaying a copy of the Holy Quran from the Umayyad period and near it is an ancient key to the Kaaba in Mecca representing the pilgrimage.

The remaining three items are lamps decorated with Kufic writing representing Arabic literature, a ceramic vessel from Iran to show the contributions of non-Arab countries to Islamic civilisation, and an astrolabe showing the development of Arab science. A wooden door decorated with foliage and geometric elements is also among the objects on display.

“Artefacts that were damaged in the explosion and have been restored are also on display within the collection, and they have been distinguished from the others by special labels,” Al-Shoki said.

He said the blast had damaged 179 artefacts. 169 have been completely restored, while 10, all carved in glass, are beyond repair. Among the most important are a rare decorated Ayyubid jar and an Umayyad plate in porcelain.

A three-month exhibition of the damaged and restored objects is being held for the re-opening of the MIA, with materials showing the efforts made to return the objects to their original condition and the restoration carried out at the Museum.

Al-Shoki said a showcase displaying objects from the former ruling Mohamed Ali family was being added to the exhibition. This includes a golden copy of the Holy Quran being exhibited for the first time, clothing worn by former Kings Fouad and Farouk, and documents concerning Farouk’s marriages, including wedding invitations.

The museum’s funerary arts hall has been converted into a hall exhibiting Arabic calligraphy. The new hall shows the different styles of Arabic calligraphy through a collection of manuscripts and inscribed wood and stone. The hall originally dedicated to calligraphy has been converted into a hall showing instruments used in daily life.

The hall resembles a residential house from the Islamic era, and includes children’s toys, jewelry, pots and pans and musical instruments.

“The void in front of the hall is dedicated to a three-dimensional sound-and-light show telling stories about distinguished sultans, scientists and artists from the Islamic era,” Al-Shoki told the Weekly. He added that the narration would be in English, French or Arabic at different times during the week.

“The MIA storage areas were not affected by the explosion. All of them are safe and sound, except gallery 16 which had not been touched since 1903,” he added, explaining that this gallery had now been improved by the Emirates team.

The MIA was first proposed in 1869, even before the establishment of the Committee of Arab Antiquities that was set up to form a national collection of Islamic art. The Museum of Islamic Art opened its doors in 1881 with an initial display of 111 objects gathered from mosques and mausoleums across Egypt initially exhibited in the arcades of the mosque of the Fatimid Caliph Al-Hakim.

Owing to a 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.

While the museum’s name has been changed over the years, in 1952 its 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 Egyptian national collection of Islamic art and, owing to new discoveries, purchases and donations, this now boasts some 100,000 objects.

Nevertheless, by the time renovation work started on the museum in 1999, it had been beset by negligence. 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 National Library and Archives.

In 2003, the Ministry of Culture launched a comprehensive restoration plan for the museum in order to reinstate its original function and splendour. The master plan for the renovation work and the new exhibition design was drawn up by French designer and museographer Adrien Gardère in cooperation with the Islamic Art Department of the Louvre Museum in Paris, which had recommended the reorganisation of the museum’s collections.

The plan shifted the museum’s main entrance to Port Said Street, where it had originally been. From there, visitors first encounter an introductory gallery that presents Islamic arts and Muslim countries and their locations in the world in a mixed display made up of panels, maps and objects from the collection.

They also get an idea of the geography of Cairo and the early Islamic city of Fustat, the oldest Islamic settlement in Egypt. In 2010, the restored museum was officially inaugurated with 1,874 objects distributed among 14 galleries and open courts.

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