Friday,20 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1129, 3 - 9 January 2013
Friday,20 October, 2017
Issue 1129, 3 - 9 January 2013

Ahram Weekly

The grass roots on display

Despite its distinguished history, Cairo’s Agricultural Museum has had difficulties in recent years, writes Mai Samih. But things are finally changing

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Many people will be acquainted with Cairo’s Agricultural Museum from memories of school trips, and they may be likely to have memories of a building full of elderly exhibits, together with plants that are perhaps of the greatest interest to experts. Today, however, the Agricultural Museum has been adapting to changing circumstances and the needs of new audiences.

The museum was set up by the government before World War II in order to spread awareness about the importance of agriculture for Egypt and to inform the public of the country’s agricultural history. King Fouad had the idea of setting up the museum, and it was inaugurated in 1938 by his son Farouk. The museum covers an area of around 30 feddans, or some 125,000 square metres. The museum itself occupies some 20,000 metres of this, and the rest is given over to gardens. 

The museum is centred on the former palace of princess Fatema, the daughter of the Khedive Ismail, and other buildings were added later. Today, it has a Pharaonic garden, a cinema, a lecture hall and laboratories for plant research. It has some 10 sections, including those given over to ancient Egyptian agriculture, new acquisitions, breadmaking, the plant world and an Arab hall. The museum’s scientific collections are open to the public, and a further three collections are to be inaugurated next year.  

The Director of the Agricultural Museum and Deputy Minister of Agriculture Mohamed Al-Akkad says that the museum has in the past sometimes struggled to continue its mission because of financial difficulties. “Ticket prices used to be just 10 piastres,” he said. “But we have raised the price to LE3, and LE10 for foreigners, and this allows access to all parts of the museum. In future, we intend to raise ticket prices further in order to raise revenue for the museum.”

In the past, many people were not aware of the museum’s existence. “The Agricultural Museum was depicted by some people as a place for agricultural experts only, which is not true. However, this idea was keeping visitors away, so I made agreements with schools in order to encourage children to come to see the museum,” Al-Akkad said.

Manager Mohamed Alaaeddin Nazeeh adds that many new measures have been taken to attract visitors. “We have a 50 per cent discount on tickets for schools, and some schools have free entry, like special needs schools, as do students from the faculties of archeology, applied arts, and agriculture. In the past, revenues were LE7,000 to 8,000, but today they have risen to some LE100, 000 due to the renovations we have been doing.”

However, even so these do not cover all the museum’s overheads or the salaries of its employees. “There is no money to pay for producing booklets on the contents of the museum and the historical discoveries it contains. This means that people are not aware enough of the museum and its treasures,” Al-Akkad said. “We need to increase our income by increasing the facilities of the museum, perhaps by renovating the garden and reopening the restaurant. We are contacting tourist guides to help us, and one Japanese professor of Egyptology has arranged for Japanese tourism companies to include the museum on their itineraries. The museum is also included in guidebooks to Giza.”

“We need to raise money for the museum’s activities. We used to have cultural events, such as lectures on the agricultural history of Egypt and by academics from universities abroad, but these activities have had to come to an end due to financial difficulties,” Al-Akkad said.

Security is also an issue. “After the 25 January Revolution baltaguis [thugs] started bothering us, and there were even attempts to attack the museum. However, we don’t have the resources to hire private security guards. There are a couple of police officers outside the museum, but they are not sufficient. We need more guards inside the museum as well. Since there is a lack of trained younger staff, we have to use older staff to help us,” Al-Akkad said.

Nazeeh said that more work was necessary in order to restore the Agricultural Museum to its former quality. “We are organising visits on Saturdays now, which was not the case before, especially during the revolution when we used to close on Fridays and Saturdays. We are currently experimenting, and if the plans work we will try to scale things upwards.” In the past, the museum was open from 9am to 5pm, but today visiting hours have had to be reduced to 9am to 1pm for security reasons. “There are many antique items in the store rooms waiting to be displayed, but there is no room for them at the moment because of the lack of financial resources to build more halls. These items are vulnerable to theft or damage,” Al-Akkad added.

Al-Akkad described some of the developments the museum had seen in its 70-year history. “The auditorium used to have cinema equipment, but we have now turned it into a conference hall. At the beginning of the rule of former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser, orders were given to destroy the portraits of the former royal family in the museum, but the officer in charge decided to hide them instead, and years later we found them. I decided to appoint a renovation specialist to prepare the paintings for display, and some of them are now in the original princess Fatema building.”

According to Al-Akkad, the new acquisitions building was originally meant to be part of the Cairo University campus, but then King Fouad decided to turn it into an annex of the Ministry of Agriculture instead and then into part of the Agricultural Museum. Nazeeh believes the museum needs more staff, and he looks to the government to provide them. “We need more gardeners and more security personnel both inside and outside the museum. You can’t display priceless antique items without security,” he said.

Ramadan, 33, visiting the museum with his family, expressed dismay at the few visitors in the museum. “I feel there is something beautiful and unique about this place. Instead of going to other places, I often come here to spend the day with my family. My children enjoy the place, and they are able to see monuments, antiques, and scientific discoveries. There are also guides to help. I don’t know why more people don’t visit this wonderful museum.”

On entering the museum’s scientific collection, the first things that catch the eye are the mock-ups of shops on the left and right of the hall showing the different trades and crafts that existed in Egypt in the 19th century and giving the impression of a market with features such as cafés. There is a fortune-teller, indicating popular superstitions at the time, and a wedding celebration with a camel carrying a wooden howdaj (cabin) with the bride seated in it. The display also features the clothes worn by women in the different governorates in Egypt.

On the second floor of the same building, there is a skeleton of a whale in the middle of the hall and on the left and right there are specimens of insects, reptiles, and other animals. In the middle of the hall there is a model of the Aswan High Dam and the Delta dam, together with the development of dam technology in Egypt. There are models of machines used in agricultural projects and samples of wool and woolen products.

The building in the centre is the princess Fatema building, or acquisitions section, which was inaugurated in July 2004. It contains a rare collection of paintings of the former royal family, as well as paintings and statues by Egyptian and foreign artists. There are rare items of furniture and Persian rugs that once belonged to princess Fatema, some of them dating back to the 18th century.

The plant world collection building is next to the scientific collection building, and it displays specimens of grains and fruit and the technology used in growing them. The halls display specimens of disease-stricken plants and the methods used to treat them. There are samples of manufactured products from Egyptian factories, such as canned fruits and vegetables. 

The Arab hall is on the east side of the museum grounds, and it contains material relating to the agricultural and commercial history of Syria, displaying products from the time of the Egyptian-Syrian union in the early 1960s. The hall displays features of life in Syria, starting from samples of fruit and vegetables grown there to various craft items made in Syrian workshops. There are also life-size statues showing the styles of dress worn by Syrians from different age groups and districts.

On the left is the cotton museum, founded in September 1996, which displays samples of cotton from Egypt and around the world as well as information on yields from the 1930s to the present day. This section of the museum tells the story of cotton in Egypt from its beginning during the rule of Mohamed Ali in the 19th century to the present. It also displays the life-cycle of the plant and the materials that are made from it.

In the centre of the museum area is the museum of ancient Egyptian agriculture, founded in March 1996. This narrates the history of agriculture in Egypt from prehistoric times until the Pharaonic period and includes some 3,000 items. The museum shows genuine specimens of the food and plants found in ancient Egyptian tombs and samples of the vegetables and grains that were used for different purposes in ancient Egypt.

There are also samples of the linen the ancient Egyptians wove as well as their famous papyrus paper. There is also a hall demonstrating the various agricultural processes used in ancient Egypt that uses display models. The second floor contains collection of mummified animals, both wild and domestic, that existed in Egypt at the time, as well as ancient Egyptian papyruses depicting images of animals.

The museum is planning Greek, Roman, Islamic, and Coptic sections, which are due to be inaugurated next year. At the main entrance is the Pharaonic garden, planned to resemble gardens in the time of the Pharaohs, and near it there is a Roman garden and an Arab garden on the same pattern. These gardens are designed to give visitors a taste of how gardens looked in different ages. 

According to Al-Akkad, the Agricultural Museum is helping schools in Egypt to improve the teaching of history. “The habit of visiting museums should be taught in schools and should be included on school syllabuses,” he said, since museums have a crucial role to play in teaching history. 

“We need more people who understand museums and the roles they can play in society. Museums contain the nation’s memory, and they are the repositories of its culture and history. People’s awareness of them should increase,” Nazeeh concludes.

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