Egypt's newest museums risk turning great history into cliches

Egypt's museums have for too long been used to burnish autocratic rule, rather than show Egyptians their own history

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Egypt is currently building two new museums - the Grand Egyptian Museum and the National Museum of Egyptian Civilisation - while nearly all the country's current museums suffer mismanagement, poor upkeep, low visitor turnout, and financial stagnation.

Unless cultural management is overhauled and revolutionised, the fate of Egypt's two new museums is likely to be similar to that of other museums in the country.

When completed, the Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM) and the National Museum of Egyptian Civilisation (NMEC) will be the largest in the region and NMEC promises to be the region's only comprehensive national history museum covering prehistoric times to the present.

Both museums are located in world-famous archaeological sites. GEM is at the Giza Plateau with a view of the Great Pyramids and NMEC is at Fustat, Egypt's first capital under Arab rule. But despite their high-profile locations and unique contents, these museum projects are virtually unknown to the majority of Egyptians.

During Hosni Mubarak's 30-year rule, Egyptian museums were ignored while tourists were directed towards only the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities.

Egyptians were largely left to consume folklore while museums fell out of public interest. The state made no efforts to make Egypt's many museums attractive destinations for average citizens and upon visiting museums frequented by foreigners, Egyptians were often subjected to questioning. After three decades of such policies many Egyptians have grown distant from their country's museums, their material culture and history.

In addition to the state's failure to attract domestic patrons it has also failed to develop the professions needed to maintain Egypt's museums and their contents: there is no school of museology despite many museums, nor does the country have a school of conservation and monument restoration, although Egypt is home to one-quarter of the world's antiquities.

Foreign expertise is always needed in setting up a new museum and the state favours foreign archaeologists over Egyptian archaeologists.

These two new museums are the latest cultural projects undertaken by the Egyptian state since it consolidated its control over culture and heritage in the 1960s. These mega-museum projects, which lay claim to national history and by extension identity, are in fact opaque, top-down, authoritarian endeavours.

They are the products of the cooperation between international agencies such as Unesco and local despots and their ministers, just as it was with the Mubarak regime. The general public is not the intended audience. These museums are built to polish the image of authoritarian autocrats as custodians of national culture as perceived by international tourists.

Furthermore, because tourists are the intended audiences of these new museums there is a risk of reducing the complex history of Egypt's civilisation to easily digestible cliches designed for the package tourist. These projects, along with much of Egypt's cultural management, rested on the visions and desires of specific persons, rather than public institutions.

From 1987 until 2011 Egypt had one minister of culture - Farouk Hosni, a close friend of the Mubaraks. Suzanne Mubarak, wife of the president of 30 years, had been active in state-sponsored cultural programming such as the Child Museum in Cairo and the Bibliotheca Alexandriana. Zahi Hawass, chief inspector of the Giza Plateau from 1993, was appointed in 2002 as secretary general of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities.

Egypt's rich material culture from prehistoric times until the present was in the direct control of two men and the wife of the president was their patron. It is in this context and under the tutelage of a small circle of individuals that projects such as the two new museums emerged. Where does Egyptian society figure in these grand visions of ordering, categorising, displaying and narrating of history?

The uprising of last year has led to the removal of these figures, at least officially, from Egypt's cultural institutions. However, the system that has roots in the 1960s with the establishment of the Culture Ministry, and which was further consolidated over the past two decades around particular persons, is still intact.

There is a conflict of interest here: on the one hand there is a desire to establish world-renowned museums, and such institutions need to be independent to fulfil their potential. On the other hand, these new museums must fit within a centralised state bureaucracy that sees culture, ambiguously defined, as manageable by the state for its political interests.

Successful museums thrive away from the oppressive control of governments. Yet Egypt has been and continues to be governed by an oppressive state structure that interferes heavily in the daily lives of citizens through mechanisms of censorship and surveillance - where even the displays in a museum are viewed through the lens of national security.

An immediate reconfiguration of Egypt's cultural management is necessary or else we run the risk of replacing Mubarak, Mr Hawass and Mr Hosni with new figures whose whims will determine the fate of Egypt's cultural heritage.

Establishing a culture ministry in the 1960s had direct political implications. The initial name of the ministry was Irshad, or "guidance ministry". The department was designed to disseminate centrally produced, state-orchestrated and controlled cultural productions across Egypt through regional cultural centres.

In addition to sponsoring art, theatre and film in its early days, the ministry evolved as a censoring body, editing what was deemed acceptable cultural production. In 2001, the ministry withdrew from circulation three novels by the 8th century poet Abu Nuwas because of their homoerotic content.

Since the 1970s, the ministry had shifted away from acting as a producer of culture and became a stagnant bureaucracy as Egypt's cultural heritage became less an object of education for Egyptians and more a touristic commodity. Despite its tight grip over matters of culture and tourism the state has not capitalised on Egypt's potential as a destination for cultural tourism.

Egyptian museums, other than the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Tahrir Square, sit empty of visitors on most days. The educational, cultural and touristic potential of these institutions is unmatched anywhere in the world yet that potential will never be reached with the current system of museum management.

When the Cairo Museum of Islamic Art closed in 2003 for renovation, personal conflicts between Mr Hosni and renovation designers over the colour of the wall paint delayed the project.

The US$10 million (Dh37m) renovation, resulting mostly in wall paint and new displays, took eight years to complete. During that time Qatar opened its celebrated Museum of Islamic Art.

If Cairo's Islamic Art Museum had been independent with its own management seeking the museum's best interest, and publicising the museum internationally, seeking to welcome as many visitors as possible, that renovation would have turned out differently. The state should provide financial and logistical support to cultural institutions, not suffocate them.

Egypt's two new museums represent nearly $1 billion in investment and loans. That is a price too high to pay for institutions that will not be able to realise their full potential.

Mohamed Elshahed is a doctoral candidate in the Middle East and Islamic Studies department at New York University. He blogs about Cairo's architecture, urbanism and culture