Sunday,17 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1217, (16 - 22 October 2014)
Sunday,17 December, 2017
Issue 1217, (16 - 22 October 2014)

Ahram Weekly

All about the NMEC

The cultural section of the National Museum of Egyptian Civilisation will open in November. The new institution’s director tells Nevine El-Aref about his plans

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Al-Ahram Weekly

The recent appointment of Egyptologist Khaled El-Enany as director-general of the National Museum of Egyptian Civilisation (NMEC) was met with surprise by some archaeologists and curators, especially among employees of the Ministry of Antiquities. Some consider El-Enany to be too young for such a post and see him as an outsider. He is the NMEC’s 18th director-general in the last seven years.

Although the appointment has not pleased everyone, there has been general agreement that El-Enany has the necessary qualifications and integrity. He completed his doctorate in Egyptology in 2001 at Montpellier III University in France, writing on ancient Egyptian royal names. He began his academic career at the Faculty of Tourism and Hotel Management at Helwan University, where he rose through the ranks.

While at Helwan, El-Enany was director of the Open Learning Centre, head of the Tourism Guidance Department, vice-dean for Education and Student Affairs and a professor of Egyptology. He is also an associate scientific expert and member of the board of administration at the French Institute of Oriental Archaeology in Cairo (IFAO) and a visiting professor at Montpellier III. He has lectured in France and Switzerland.

El-Enany spoke to the Weekly about his vision for the new institution. His office at the NMEC, in the Al-Fustat area of Cairo, overlooking Ain Al-Sira Lake, is small and modern. There is a black leather sofa, two armchairs and a table. There is a large window behind Al-Enany’s desk. A bookshelf occupies another wall.

“When I was asked by the minister to direct the NMEC, I was surprised but very proud to be selected to hold such an important and interesting post,” Al-Enany said. He added that after his appointment he thanked Minister of Antiquities Mamdouh Eldamaty for his trust and confidence in him. He says he returned to Egypt after the June 2013 Revolution, after spending a year in Montpellier, because he wanted to help rebuild and develop Egypt.

El-Enany acknowledges that he has been given a challenging task, given the ministry’s budgetary concerns, but says that everyone should do the maximum possible at this point in Egypt’s history.

“I did not hesitate a minute in accepting the job, although I knew the obstacles I would have to confront to make the long-awaited dream of the NMEC come true,” he added.

Holding the post after 17 other directors in the last seven years, each of whom made his own contributions, is also likely to bring challenges, Al-Enany said. He decided to put his academic career on hold in order to accept the post because of Eldamaty’s assurance that the ministry will fully support its new projects, as far as it is able, and because of his desire to leave his own stamp on the new institution.

“I will try hard to achieve success in my new responsibility and continue what the 17 previous directors have started,” he said, noting that each of these made contributions, even if they were sometimes working in a difficult atmosphere.

Egypt, El-Enany added, will not be able to regain its reputation for tourism unless the government is able to provide the required security for tourists and organise events that create a buzz abroad.

“I guarantee that the opening of a great museum such as the NMEC will be an event of this kind,” he said.

El-Enany said that Eldamaty is going in the right direction with his support for the ministry’s mega-projects, at the top of which are the Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM) overlooking the Giza Plateau and the NMEC. The minister visits each project every week, meeting with those concerned to discuss the current state of the work, any problems they may be encountering and ways to solve these in order to meet the deadlines. The commercial and cultural sections of the NMEC are due to open before the end of this year.

The cultural section of the NMEC houses a 332-seat cinema, a 486-seat theatre, and lecture and conference halls equipped with state-of-the-art projectors, media, sound and lighting systems. The commercial section has 42 shops, which will eventually be rented out for the sale of souvenirs, handicrafts, books and other items.

The museum’s parking lot overlooks the nearby lake and will accommodate 450 cars and 55 buses. The site will also have cafeterias and restaurants. “The food courts can serve 500 people at once,” El-Enany said. The museum’s labs and storehouse are also to be opened at the end of this year. “They are the largest storage spaces in Egypt and equipped with state-of-the art equipment,” he said.

El-Enany added that though he has not visited the storage spaces at the GEM, the country needs both those at the NMEC and GEM to house the large number of archaeological artefacts that require protective housing. Some storage spaces, especially those in remote areas, lack adequate security systems, and the NMEC could help make up for this.

“This problem was shown during the lack of security in the aftermath of the 25 January Revolution, when storage spaces were subjected to damage or looting,” he said.

The NMEC storage galleries are equipped with high-tech security systems with 24-hour monitoring cameras and can easily store hundreds of thousands of items.

The museum also has two large labs for the study and preservation of human remains and objects made from organic materials. One section is dedicated to Carbon-14 analysis, and is only the second centre of its kind in Egypt, after the one at the IFAO. The NMEC also has a modern print shop that will be used for printing internal papers, books, brochures and newsletters, as well as off-site, non-museum materials.

“These labs and the print shop have cost the ministry a lot of money and now is the time to grasp the benefits,” El-Enany points out, adding that foreign archaeological missions in Egypt might take advantage of the new facilities.

The museum also has state-of-the-art theatre and cinema facilities where films can be screened and performances held. The cinema is likely to be dedicated to the showing of documentaries, but feature films may also be screened.

“Everything depends on the ministry’s decision on how it would like to administer the NMEC’s commercial and cultural section,” El-Enany said. One problem that may arise is how to determine the best use of the 42 retail spaces in the NMEC’s commercial section and appropriate rents.

Before starting his new job, Al-Enany reviewed the work that had already been done, and confirmed that restoration labs and storage spaces had been successfully completed and staff trained in collaboration with UNESCO experts. However, the drop in tourism after the 25 January Revolution has interfered with the construction schedule and work was halted. Even so, El-Enany has been amazed at what has been achieved during the difficult circumstances.

“The NMEC’s human resources are incredible,” he said. The NMEC now has 270 employees, a figure El-Enany would like to see increase to 500 when it is officially opened. The majority of the NMEC staff is young and professionally trained.

While El-Enany sees this as one the new museum’s strengths, he says that the energy and professionalism of the staff had led to their being disappointed at the lack of progress over the past three years. Salary cuts and delays in the museum’s opening — it was originally to have opened in 2011 — have hurt staff morale.

El-Enany has organised lectures for the staff in museology, restoration, archaeology, the arts and history by professional Egyptian and foreign curators, as well as archaeologists and Egyptologists from Britain, France, Italy and Switzerland. New publicity material for the museum is being prepared, including a updates to the institution’s website, where no new information had been added since the end of 2010.

One of El-Enany’s priorities is to raise staff salaries. When the NMEC begins to earn revenue, he says there will be salary increases.

“Routine administrative procedures have been the only negative aspects of the job thus far,” he said, adding that most of these have been solved since his appointment.

The minister has also set up a special committee to deal with future financial, legal and administrative problems, the members of which include representatives of the ministry’s different sections as well as the ministries of housing and finance and the Nubia Development Fund.

The third phase of the NMEC’s construction has not yet been started. This will include completion of the new museum’s exhibition halls.

“The walls and ceilings are the only things that exist in the halls at the moment,” Al-Enany said, adding that the designs for the halls have been completed and need only to be executed.

In addition to the NMEC’s main exhibition halls, including the core spaces where the artefacts will be exhibited in chronological order, the royal mummies mausoleum and the six main exhibition halls, the institution will also have temporary exhibition halls and a pyramid-shaped capital museum space at the top of the building.

“This phase will cost more than LE 500 million,” said El-Enany, adding that he has the required funds at least until the soft opening of some of the museum’s spaces in November. “If the required budget is provided and the works spruced up, the NMEC as a whole will see the light of day in less than two years,” El-Enany confirmed. He said that a fund-raising campaign has been launched in order to collect the extra funds.

“I intend to make every effort to convince UNESCO, the NMEC’s main technical advisor, to launch a fund-raising campaign for the NMEC similar to the one that was launched for the Nubian Monuments in the 1960s,” he said. “I am pretty sure that UNESCO will extend a helping hand towards the NMEC when the cultural centre is inaugurated.”

Meanwhile, UNESCO has supported the NMEC by providing museological experts and training courses for the staff. Last month, a delegation from UNESCO, International Council of Museums (ICOM) and the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM) inspected the work at the NMEC and offered solutions to the problems that have delayed its completion.

The delegation was enthusiastic about the NMEC’s laboratories and state-of-the-art equipment and praised Egypt’s efforts to preserve its cultural heritage. During the tour, the director of ICOM announced that a future ICOM annual meeting will be held in Egypt at the NMEC.

ICOM Egypt has also officially transferred its permanent bureau to the NMEC.

Later in October, ICOM will send a French expert on civilisation museums to the NMEC, El-Enany said. There are also plans to twin the institution with the Museum of Civilisations in Quebec, as well as the newly inaugurated Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations in Marseilles. Contact has also been made with the Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore.

IFAO is to train the museum’s laboratory staff in the use of the equipment, which is similar to that in the IFAO laboratories. A first group of curators, restorers and technicians had already been trained, and a further group is due to start soon. The German Archaeological Institute has also visited the NMEC and is hoping to enter into a collaboration.

El-Enany said that while the exhibition design will not be changed as construction continues, new artefacts will be added while others will be transferred to the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square or sent to the GEM. A committee has been organised by ministerial decree, including the directors of the three museums and a panel of distinguished Egyptologists, to reorganise the collections of the museums.

Finally, El-Enany said that the mission of the new museum is to serve Egyptians perhaps more than foreigners, since the new institution is not only a cultural institution displaying Egypt’s civilisation but also a leisure destination. It will help to develop the surrounding neighbourhood as well.

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