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Museums in Egypt at a Crossroad?

Susan Kamel

Published in 2A Magazine Issue #13 – Spring 2010

Egypt, with its millennia of recorded history, its pyramids, and the legacy of its pharaohs, draws millions of visitors each year. This mass tourism is a consequence of globalisation and has a lasting influence on Egyptian society: Almost every fifth Egyptian is employed in the tourism sector. In this regard, museums are of particular importance, as they along with archaeological sites act as a destination for the streams of visitors and, thus, play a decisive role in the country’s perception by the world as well as self-image. It is, therefore, not surprising that recent years have seen a boom in the building of museums in Egypt: Apart from the construction of museums at archaeologically important sites, a number of national museums have emerged.

This article focuses on the development of museums in Egypt. Before my studies of museums in the Arab World, which was funded by VolkswagenFoundation , with a focus on Egypt, I analysed museums in Western contexts regarding their communication of non-Western cultures. My studies demonstrated that museums have a power of definition, which enables social elites to legitimise themselves; however, museums can also provide space for critical discussions. Another result of my work is the cognisance that museums are not only places that foster the establishment and canonisation of scientific disciplines, such as the science of Islamic art history versus ethnology, but indeed, that they also support the now obsolete construction of “high culture” and “low or folk culture”. It was the museum that created a perception of the Orient of “exotic bazaars and goods” and that greatly influenced the perception of “Islamic high art” by displaying it on the Museum Island in Berlin among “Western High Culture”. The “other” was seen in the religion of Islam. Therefore, in this article I shall also touch upon the question as to how the “other” in Europe, so-called “Islamic art”, is exhibited in museums in Egypt, and how the “own other” (peasant cultures, Nubians) is constructed and communicated in museums.
I have conducted interviews with the curators of the different museums, used a questionnaire for the analysis of the exhibitions (Who is speaking? Is the exhibition’s subjectivity evident? Who is represented? Are minorities represented? Are controversial issues exhibited?) and supplemented this methodology by qualitative and quantitative visitor research.

Représentation de l’Égypte
Between 1858 and 1908, Europeans played a central role in the foundation of four museums in Alexandria and Cairo: The Egyptian Museum, the Greco-Roman Museum, the Coptic Museum and the Museum for Arab Art. During that time, Europeans extended their power into Egypt; hence, the historian Donald Malcolm Reid concludes with regard to the archaeological museums: “Archaeology and Imperialism seemed to walk hand in hand.” As late as the 1950s the museums in Egypt were dominated by Europeans. The “description” of Napoleon’s campaign in 1798 and the subsequent seizure of the country was made by Europeans. All museum directors came from Europe, and the picture drawn of Egypt was in accordance with their concept of what was considered “the Orient” and “Egypt” in Europe. This is exemplified by the frontispiece of the work “Déscription de l’Egypte”, which was published in 1809 in Paris and whose message was interpreted by Donald M. Reid as follows: “This is an antique land, abounding in pharaonic ruins. There is no sign of Islamic monuments, Cairo, or modern inhabitants.” The concepts of Egypt and also of the science of Egyptology were initially concerned exclusively with the country’s pharaonic heritage. Greco-Roman, Coptic, Nubian, Islamic or even contemporary history and art history were – and still are today – neglected in part or studied only outside the context of this discipline. One of the reasons for this was the fact that European scholars not only saw themselves as following in the tradition of classical antiquity but also considered the land of the Pharaohs to be the cradle of their civilisation. Likewise, at that time so-called “Islamic” art, so typical in Egypt, was integrated by European museums into European art history. However, according to Paul Sedra, the science of Egyptology has great difficulties with the fact that Egypt, as he states ironically, is “inconveniently placed on the African continent”. Hence, the problem of the influence by a “degenerated black race” had to be overcome intellectually. The “solution” was the denial of the fact that the ancient Egyptians were black.
Thus, the representation of cultures in Egyptian museums reflects European orientalism, that is, an essentialism or essential representation of an “other” culture. Indigenous orientalism or ethno-orientalism is seen as an essentialising “representation of foreign societies by members of their own societies”. Tendencies towards indigenisation in the attempt to counter academic colonialism or intellectual imperialism, respectively, with an intellectual originality – comparable, for example, with the Indian indigenous scientific movement – were expressed as early as the 1970s by Arabian social scientists. However, they too resorted to dichotomous asymmetries, such as West/East, Western/indigenous, own/ foreign. In particular, the preoccupation with the emergence and development of museums in Egypt shows that dichotomising concepts of both European and indigenous orientalism are only used as a dispositive for detecting orientalising discourses. The Ethnological Museum in Cairo can be used as an example when analysing such a discourse.
The founding institution of the Ethnological Museum in Cairo, the Geographic Society, was launched in 1875 by the Khedive Ismail Pasha and the German Africa explorer George Schweinfurth:
“The society’s original purpose was to legitimate and promote Ismail’s empire in the Sudan and the Horn of Africa, as Western geographical societies were doing for their countries‚ overseas empires. Ironically, Egypt herself soon succumbed to Western imperialism.”
For Schweinfurth, Egypt was situated between Europe and Africa and, therefore, from his point of view was strategically highly interesting for Germany. Likewise, for the Khedive Ismail and later for King Fuad, Egypt moved ever closer towards “civilised” Europe. In return, Europe praised the European spirit of the Khedive and his leading Egyptian elite.

Against this background it is interesting how Egypt represented itself in the exhibition of the Ethnological Museum, opened in 1898: Besides objects of the rural population in Egypt, mainly Sudanese ethnographic artefacts were displayed and that which the Egyptian state, namely Ismail Pasha, wished to present to the public: the inauguration of the Suez Canal in 1869. The celebrations offered the Europhile Khedive the opportunity to portray Egypt as a modern quasi-European state.
The Museum’s exhibition has not changed since then. It is divided into three rooms: a so-called “Egyptian room”, an “Africa room” and a “Europe or Suez Canal room,” which consequentially, as a reflection of the technically superior Europe, is the only room equipped with dioramas of high qualitative value.
The example of the Ethnological Museum shows clearly that in the 19th century both European imperialists as well as Egyptian elites made use of the museums to objectify and naturalise their perception of and their claims to power. In the Ethnological Museum, Egypt reinvented itself as being European and at the same time defined its “own others” (for instance, peasants) and the “colonised others” (the Sudanese). The result of this kind of museum representation was the construction of an opposition between a “black African race” and a “white European” or, respectively, an “Egyptian- European race”. Furthermore, the museum can serve as an example of the fact that, to quote Fernando Coronil, a “hierarchisation of cultural difference” is not a Western privilege , but instead closely linked to the development of “international asymmetries”, which are even reinforced by globalisation.

According to Donald Malcolm Reid, since 1952 an indigenisation has become noticeable in Egyptology. This applies likewise to museums in Egypt: All of the twenty-two museums that I visited had an Egyptian director as head of the institution. According to the secretary general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), Zahi Hawass, who dominates like no one else the museum policy of Egypt, a new era for Egypt’s museums has already begun: “Ideally museums should be secure locations to display and preserve artefacts and also educational institutions”. In 2005, Hawass developed a kind of master plan for the museums in Egypt: “New museums will focus on how ordinary Egyptians, not just royalty and the elite, participated in ancient society.”
One of today’s major museum projects in Cairo is the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization (NMEC). Like the second major project, the Grand Egyptian Museum in Cairo (GEM), it is directly under the control of the Ministry of Culture and, therefore, is of top priority. The NMEC is projected as a centre for culture, education and science for the Egyptian society and for international visitors and scholars alike. It comprises not only a museum building, but also an archaeological garden, an open-air auditorium for concerts, festivals and cultural events. A predecessor of the NMEC is the Alexandria National Museum, opened in 2003, which is newly designed and equipped with modern exhibition techniques.According to the secretary general of the SCA, the museum follows in the same philosophical tradition as the future NMEC and, in his opinion, demonstrates that the Egyptian society originates from a “cultural melting pot”.

Yet, does the museum in Alexandria really display cultural diversity? In my opinion, although the historical influences of different cultural groups are specified (for instance, the Coptic or Islamic period), themes pertaining to the presence of these groups today are excluded. In all national museums known to me, the history of Egypt ends at about 1952, that is, with the founding year of the Republic of Egypt. The display of cultural diversity in today’s Egypt is relinquished in favour of the representation of a ‘government approved’ history.


The label “Islamic Art”
In the preceding chapter it was pointed out that in 19th century Europe, Egypt, along with Greek and Roman classical antiquity, was described as the cradle of European civilisation and that so-called “Islamic art” was included in the canon of European art history. This becomes evident in the fact that the Museum of Islamic Art and the Museum of Egyptian Art are both situated on the Museum Island, the place where “Western high culture” is defined.

Hence, against the background of the history of museums in Egypt, it was interesting to note the differences between the European view of so-called “Islamic art” and the way in which it is represented in Egyptian museums. The term “Islamic art” was long a point of controversy both in museology and in the study of Islamic art, and ultimately even in part dismissed. This was due, firstly, to the misleading term “Islamic”: It does not relate to religious artefacts, but should only designate the objects’ origin, which again is misleadingly described as “Islamic world”. Secondly, the term “art” is similarly problematic, as it suggests a canonisation and elevation to the rank of “high art” as opposed to popular art or folk art, which marginalises the context of the objects’ production.

What are the exhibition strategies chosen by the Egyptian museums? Are the terms “Islamic” and “art” discussed? Are they perceived differently by the visitors? Similar to European exhibitions on Islamic art, the Museum for Islamic Art in Cairo initially carried the name ‘Gallery of Arab Antiquities’ and was renamed ‘Museum for Islamic Art’ only as late as 1952 under the directorship of Zaki Hassan. This was done “in order to recognise the role of the non-Arab Muslims in the achievements of Islamic Civilization”. After a long period of renovation, the house will be reopened in 2010 and will keep this name. According to my conversations with representatives of the SCA, it will display not only religious art, but also that which was considered “Islamic” already in 19th century Europe and which is still presented as “Islamic”: floral and abstract motives and objects bearing Arabic script.

A very rare endeavour to deconstruct the label “Islamic art” was presented in 2006 in the Museum of Modern Art in New York: The exhibition “Without Boundary” can be considered as one attempt to question essentialist ascriptions of Islamic art: The curator Fereshteh Daftari writes in her preface of the catalogue under the heading Islamic or Not: “The study of ‘Islamic Art’ is an occidental invention, originating in Europe in the 1860s”.
However, art from Islamic-influenced countries is displayed in Egyptian museums, where Muslims represent the majority in society, in a manner resembling exhibitions in Western museums: Here and there, stereotypes of the art of “Islam” determine the selection of objects, the labels and their way of display.
Likewise, to use the Coptic Museum in Cairo as an example, the problem of the museum’s construction of knowledge (and science) becomes evident: Does the term “Islamic art” relate to works with “Islamic aesthetics” or to art from “countries influenced by Islam” ? Does “Islamic art” in Egyptian museums also include Nubian Art or even Coptic art?

And is Coptic art exclusively Christian art? Or was the art of the Copts and Muslims also produced for a secular sphere? Further, how can the presence of Nubian monuments in the Coptic Museum be explained? When the Arabs conquered Egypt in 641, they called the inhabitants qibt (Copts). “Coptic” means “Egyptian”; therefore, all Copts are Egyptians. But not all Egyptians are Copts. Coptic art was exhibited for the first time in Egypt in 1890, in the predecessor of the Egyptian Museum, the Boulaq Museum. At the turn of the century, the Coptic Church strove towards an independent exhibition of Coptic art, which was realised between 1908 and 1910. In 2007, the Egyptologist Nadja Tomoum wrote the following about the objects of the Coptic Museum: “However, Coptic art is not only an expression of Christian Egyptian believers, but also greatly reflects the cosmopolitan atmosphere with various ethnic groups living in the country during this period. Among them were Greeks, Romans, Armenians, Persians, Jews and Arabs, who all had an impact on the local art production.”


Hence, some objects in the collection are (also) “Islamic”, while others are (also) “Nubian”. Ernst Kühnel, scholar of Islamic studies, notes in his article, “Coptic Art in Islamic Egypt”, that an identification of art as Coptic or Arabic- Islamic is difficult for the mere reason that Arabs had to rely upon Coptic craftsmen for the construction of the first mosques. As a result of my studies, it can be concluded that in Egypt the presentation of art and cultures as “Islamic”, “Coptic” or “Nubian” is highly problematic.
In order to facilitate the representation of interwoven, interdependent cultures, not only an intensive discussion of the contents of the exhibition is necessary, but I would suggest also inclusion of the museum visitors in the exhibition development. Research on the reception of “Islamic”, “Coptic” or “Nubian” art, particularly with regard to the visitors’ cultural background, is still a desideratum. So, to get an idea of the preconception and the stereotypes of Egyptians visiting the exhibitions, I have conducted interviews in three museums in the context of my study. The results will be presented here in brief. Following detailed front-end evaluations conducted by the Victoria and Albert Museums in London for the redisplay of the Jameel Gallery of Islamic Art (which, in answer to the results, was renamed ‘Art from the Islamic Middle East’), we interviewed visitors in three museums– the Museum for Islamic Ceramics, the Coptic Museum and the Nubia Museum–about their views on “Islamic”, “Coptic” and “Nubian” art. The persons questioned associated all three categories exclusively with formalistic definitions concerning the decoration (for example, calligraphy; icons; Nubian decorations). Another interesting result of the interviews was that my Muslim interview partners followed the stereotype that images are prohibited in Islamic art. And here, incidentally, my results coincide with those gained by the Victoria and Albert Museums from Western museum visitors. Only one visitor of the Coptic Museum stated that there were Christian craftsmen who created “Islamic art”. This is important, as the interviews show that among visitors who are socialised in Islamic countries there are many misconceptions, which could and should be addressed and questioned in an exhibition.

would like to conclude my research on the construction of so-called Islamic art in museums by turning to contemporary discourses on art, which expose the terms “Islamic”, “art” and “culture”.
In Egypt’s private art scene a new generation of artists emerged, who can be described according to the art historian Hal Foster’s analysis of The Artist as Ethnographer. Foster considers contemporary works of art as a result of a globalised, postcolonial world. These artists, who no longer originate from solely one culture, have created works of art that deny an essentialist ascription. In the eyes of these artists, labels such as “Islamic art”, “Art from the Middle East” (Saatchi Gallery 2009) or “Contemporary Arabic Representations” (Catherine David) are rather misleading. By focusing on social and political reality in non-European cultures and communicating these themes aesthetically, the artists play a role that was originally assigned to ethnological museums. In this context, a statement made by the anthropologist Shelten is quite interesting, namely that artists as well as ethnologists undertake the creative act of both defining and constructing cultures.
How can museums which display culture benefit from this? If one follows the art historian Arndt Schneider, the encounter of ethnography and contemporary art could assist ethnologists in finding new strategies for visual representation and investigation. According to the Egyptian artist and curator Amer Abbas, contemporary artists are “semionauts”, who pervade all social spheres: “The artist is permanently squatting every other field”. Cooperating with and fostering these and other semionauts as artists and curators could be a further chance for Egypt – not only in the sphere of art.
On the way towards a (new) museology in Egypt Museums have been – and some still are today – in the service of the social elites. They have the power to support social hierarchies, but they can also be instruments for overcoming prejudices and social inequalities. Apart from selecting objects for the collections and the themes addressed and studied by museum, the ways and forms of communication are of great significance.
The most prominent way of presentation, not only in art museums, is the “White Cube”: In the context of my research on communication forms in museums in Berlin, I was able to show that this kind of presentation makes use of the idea of a “space without locality” , that is, the idea of space untouched
by history and locality and, thus, also supports among other things the construction of an essentialised image of Islam.

In other words: By means of a formal aesthetic way of presentation the museum visitor, the supposed connoisseur, is led or, as I would like to note critically, even forced to “feel” the form of the objects. Thereby, any information, whether about the origin, function or political context of the objects’ production, is perceived as disturbing the direct effect of the objects: The objects are left to speak for themselves. My criticism also relates to the fact that this kind of presentation neglects differences, regarding their production, taste, perception etc. Particularly in the case of museums that present “Islamic” cultures, the colonial view of an exotic “other” is imposed on the recipients. Thus, White Cube presentations in Egyptian museums can be seen as an expression of the European claim to hegemony in art historiography. As mentioned above, this criticism stands in none too insignificant contrast to the demand of numerous Egyptian artists for perception of their art regardless of their cultural origin. In my opinion, this reflects the fear that their own art could become indigenised and thus rendered folkloric in ethnological museums.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, there was a paradigm shift with regard to the perception of museums. In particular as a result of the “crisis of representation” of the cultural studies, ‘New Museology’ emerged, a new movement that demanded an inclusive museum work, aimed at the empowerment of marginalised social groups. It also demanded representation in museums. The involvement of the public (keyword “Audience Development”) as experts in the interpretation of their own cultures had to be an integral part of the development of exhibitions; further of importance was that research work should now take place in cooperation with source communities.
Likewise, communication theories have developed during the past decades. Eilean Hooper-Greenhill describes a development from the once linear sender – message – recipient theories to constructivist ideas: Museums visitors are not any more perceived as “empty vessels” that have to be “filled” with knowledge and aesthetic experiences, but instead as active “meaning makers”, who can be assigned to various target groups. According to this perception, every visitor brings along his own knowledge, his own ideas, prejudices and expectations and upon this basis constructs new meanings and new knowledge.
It is the aim of the New Museology to make exhibitions accessible for all visitors – physically, socially and intellectually.

Their demands are addressed to the exhibition organisers: They should consider the process of creating an exhibition as communicational work and involve the different groups of visitors in the planning and design of exhibitions. From this point of view communication and educational museum work can be complemented by events, projects or workshops. Hence, participation and cooperation are – just like within the museum’s task of collecting and researching – the new keywords for the sphere of communication as well. The theories of the New Museology have their origin in the criticism of Western societies and their predominance over “indigenous” cultures. The theories aim toward the democratisation and de-colonisation of museums. How far is this democratic museum work possible in a country, in which democratic ideas are based upon the concept of the Shura, the parliamentary democracy under the kingdom of God and the Qur’an? Firstly, it must be noted that in Egypt there is no New Museum Movement comparable to that in other Countries like the US or India. Does this mean that there is no room for these ideas at all?
In Egypt, the university discipline of museology is still in its early stages of development: According to Mohamad Salah el Kholi, dean of the archaeological faculty at Cairo University, museology (ilm al-mutahif) is mainly taught as museum education (at-tarbiya al-mathafiya): The positivist communication theory upon which museum education is based is described as standing upon three pillars: the museum object (sender), the museum guide (medium) and the child (recipient). Abdel Halim Nur al Din teaches this subject at Cairo University and published a standard work in 2009. There, it is made evident that museums in Egypt must serve tourism, on the one hand, while, on the other, they must function as important instruments of national patriotic identity. In his museological work there is no indication of the fact that the museum is a social agent, a “cultural broker”, which should enable a critical approach to history.

However, in my opinion there are a few places in Egypt where a critical museology is being practised, for the Egyptian civil society also demands for political and cultural participation: The Contemporary Image Collective (CIC) is a so-called artist- run space, founded in 2004 by a multinational collective of artists in the quarter of Monira in Cairo, one of the city’s poor districts. Made up of photo and video artists, this artist collective focuses on the analysis and production of images in a country in which working with images is a political issue.
Furthermore, the CIC seeks to study the shifting dynamics between citizens and public places, and, for example, establishes relationships between the concepts of privacy, property, rank, marginalised subcultures and the guarded communities. As a public exhibition space that endeavours to stimulate discussions, the CIC is an important place forCairo: It demonstrates how art can be used as medium, and it makes use of artistic strategies in order to occupy public spaces. Thus, the museum dissolves its boundaries. In this way, the artists are squatting the field of mediating foreign cultures and, thus, compete considerably – by means of critical exhibitions which focus on contemporary cultures as well – with ethnological museums. A further gallery of importance for my research is the Townhouse Gallery in downtown Cairo, which, in addition to its own exhibitions, launched a program for Egyptian curators in 2008. For the first time they will have the opportunity to learn critical curatorial practices, critical writing as well as art management.
The Nubia Museum in Aswan was established on the initiative of the UNESCO. The museum is meant as compensation to the Nubians for the construction of the Aswan High Dam, which led to the destruction of their invaluable cultural heritage by the constantly rising water level since the 1960s.
The Nubian Rescue Campaign of the UNESCO achieved the realisation of numerous rescue excavations, through which a large number of archaeological treasures were uncovered. The intent was that they would be preserved and exhibited in a new museum building. While the museum’s foundation was doubtless of great importance for the preservation of Nubian culture, criticism about the UNESCO undertaking gradually arose. For example, Fekri A. Hassan wrote in 2007 that half of all finds had been passed on to the countries which had financed the campaign. Furthermore, during the celebrations of the 50th anniversary of UNESCO’s Nubian Rescue Campaign in 2009, it became questionable whether the protection of the Nubian culture is more concerned withmonuments and less with the Nubians themselves.
The Nubia Museum in Aswan was opened in 1997. Probably it is the first community museum in Egypt, if not in the entire Arab world. Herbert Ganslmayr, a representative of the New Museology, played a leading role in developing a concept for the ethnographic department. The museum wasbuilt for the rescue and preservation of the Nubian cultural heritage and, at least according to the Mission Statement, for the strengthening of the Nubian minority by representing it in the museum. Its present director, Osama Abdel Meguid, writes: “Having deliberately moved away from the outdated concepts of a museum being a static place for the exhibition of artefacts alone, the board and staff are pursuing a strategy to ensure that the museum is part of and responds to the Aswan community.”
The architecture of the museum building is intended to harmonise perfectly with the surrounding landscape, the home of the Nubian cultures. The entire museum complex is an expression of the living museum: Through workshops, dance performances, travelling exhibitions, increased consciousness of current issues, action plans for improving social conditions of community members as well as through “Heritage Days”, much better way. Modern Nubian cultures and identities are excluded it seems deliberately. However, representation in the museum alone does not suffice. The Nubia Museum with its innovative concept is part of the Nubian society and of a globalised tourist world.

Museums – and this applies equally to Western and non- Western ones – participate in shaping society in which they are located, but additionally they are also a product of the respective society. Egyptian museums, curators and other museum professionals already benefit from international cooperation, from the exchange of ideas or objects. However, there is still a great demand for cooperation, training programmes, workshops and conferences, for not only the exchange of theories but also to provide opportunities for reporting on daily museum work. Important as it is to fetch the so-called experts (although it must be considered that they are usually only experts in their own particular fields without any local experience), there is also the need for fostering capacity building. A further desideratum is the lack of museological literature in Arabic. According to my Egyptian colleagues, transnational networks are likewise necessary to provide space for a critical discourse in Egypt as well.
The search for new and different forms of communicating “Islamic art and cultures” was the starting point of my project From Imperial Museum to Communication Centre? How can we exhibit “other” cultures here? The Volkswagen Foundation has supported a subsequent project with the aim of trying out different forms of display, which is directly related to our project: The project Exhibition Experiment Museology.
On Curating Islamic History of Art and Culture, is aimed at mock-up testing various exhibition situations and, thus, at developing new ways of communicating culture, while keeping constant contact with members of different source communities. Thus, the process of curating will become the focal point in the main part of the project. Here, cooperation between curators, scholars, artists and museum educators will be supported and analysed; at the same time it is intended to integrate potential museum visitors into the exhibition development. Cooperation with two Berlin institutions is envisaged in this central part of the project: the Museum of Islamic Art and the Kreuzberg Museum of Urban Development and Social History.
The study of museums in the so called “Western World” and the “Islamic Middle East” and the change of perspectives in the presentation and representation of “Western” or “non- Western” cultures in museums here and there – is an endeavour that should be self-evident when working in museums worldwide.
The article was fisrt published in Guzy, Lidia; Hatoum, Rainer; Kamel, Susan: Museum Islands. Panama Verlag. Berlin 2009