Several hours of my last two days in Cairo were spent at the Egyptian Museum. This is a building I have visited many times and, in 2008, briefly worked at as an intern on the an ARCE/SCA project to create a digital database for the museum’s 100,000 or more objects. Several changes had taken place since my last visit here in 2009. Outside, the side of the building closest to the Nile has been developed into a café and ‘museum store’ – the latter still empty after it took the brunt of looting during the Egyptian revolution last year.
Inside, I was pleased to see a large number of visitors had returned – but also happy to enjoy the galleries without full-capacity Easter holiday crowds. A major change is the ongoing – and much-needed – painting work within the galleries. Along with the addition of some new lighting, the interior of the museum space has been simply but effectively transformed and now feels much lighter and modern. The reorganisation of some areas has been of major benefit in foregrounding some previously-hidden aspects of the collection.
I was delighted to see back on display the striking Persian Period stela discovered in 1990s by the Saqqara Geophysical Survey Project. It now keeps company with many – roughly contemporary – statues from the Karnak Cachette, objects that formed the subject of my Ph.D dissertation. I confess also to taking a new interest in objects from the same sites as those in Manchester, or those that provide parallels. I hope to explore these connections further in the new galleries’ interpretation and in information available on our digital catalogue.
The site of the Museum, in Tahrir Square, is now world-famous as the scene of the Egyptian revolution. Indeed several visitors were more interested in taking photographs of the burnt-out government building next to the Museum than in the (now expanded) number of monuments in the Museum gardens. I was in Luxor at the end of January 2011, during the height of the Tahrir demonstrations. I remember clearly the stunned silence among a gathering of Egyptologists when someone reported that the museum in Cairo was on fire. That report, fortunately, proved to be inaccurate but typified the sometimes hysterical reactions at the time from around the world. It was therefore incredibly heartening to see the Museum reinventing itself. This great collection of Egyptian antiquities has become as much about Egypt’s present and future as about its past.