Generally, i dislike museums. The Egyptian museum in Cairo where i spent a couple of hours recently was worse than most. As Sky described it aptly, it is more of a warehouse than a museum. It is poorly lit, there are lots of displays with no descriptions on them at all. There are so many objects in it (140K our guide says) that it feels endless and impossible to experience in any way except the most cursory. [If you spent 10 seconds in front of each exhibition, you would be there for 9 days straight]
In Athens recently we went to the New Acropolis Museum and this is one of the very few adult museums in the world i actually like (the others are the now closed holography museum in NYC and the Dali Museum outside Barcelona). The New Acropolis Museum is big and well lit and has a quite manageable collection of items to see and a good mixed of multimedia exhibits as well as “static” ones. It is also an attractive modern building.
So this got me to thinking about what it is that could make the Egyptian museum better. For starters, there is no way that they are going to abandon this museum, it is a huge historic building and replacing it or even moving the thousands of items (almost all ancient and many fragile) is a tremendous job. And I am confident that there is a huge entrenched bureaucracy, which will view all change as bad. There are simple things which could be done to improve this space. Better lighting and displays would help a lot, even for just the most frequented 0.1% of the items here. Yet this is the uninteresting part of the thought experiment.
Right next door to the museum is the one of the old party buildings from the Mubarek days. During last years revolution, this building was partially burned and is now (like many buildings in Cairo) abandoned. It is very well situated, huge and probably structurally sound. If our objective is to improve tourism quality of experience, increase revenue for the existing museum and serve a greater number of people, employing this building for that purpose would likely be cost effective.
The first thing would be to recognize that the existing museum, largely unaltered since 1901, misses a huge fraction of the population which wishes to be served by the building. While a grand building, perhaps 90% of the exhibits are not wheelchair accessible, there is no air conditioning and at best the displays are labeled in only Arabic and English. When we take over the old party building next door, these should all be design considerations. We should assume that in our thought experiment no money will come for the Egyptian state to build this place.
Two million people in Eygpt work directly in tourist, another 10 million are indirectly employed by it (the country is the largest in Africa with a total population of 82 million). During the revolution Mubarek was desperate to hold power. He order the police to stop protecting the Egyptian museum, so that looters were break in and he could pose the false choice of “me or chaos” but just as Christians protected Muslims praying and Mosques during the the street fighting, a human chain formed around the Egyptian museum for weeks. And it was not just tour guides and others employed by the industry, literally thousands were there day and night to make sure that the chaos around revolution did not damage these national treasures.
The only copy in the existing Egyptian Museum is the Rosetta Stone. This three language translation artifact could have an entire room dedicated to it in the new museum, rather than the poorly described and under appreciated display which currently exists. Even without the original, museum goers would be drawn to a more robust description of this decrypting relic. Sadly, probably the start up funding for such an effort would need to be corporate and the entire thing can’t happen without brilliant negotiators with the existing museum and the Egyptian state.
In my thought fantasy about this new museum, the existing museum could be a feeder, temporarily providing materials for exhibits in well lit, wheel chair accessible, climate controlled, multi-lingual display cases. With the intention of improving the original museum when the exhibits returned to their home in the existing neighboring museum, with funds drawn from the new revenue stream of the New Egyptian Antiquities Museum.
Hawina did a bunch of research before we came on this trip and found us a number of wonderful places to stay. My favorite tho is the Pyramid View Inn in Giza. The first nice touch is they sent us a driver to pick us up at the airport.
On the way from Cairo International to Giza there was an accident in the adjacent lane. The car, which at it’s closest was less than 50′ from us and still moving, completely flipped upside down and was skidding at 70 mph on the highway inverted. Our driver deftly navigated the traffic which momentarily became even more erratic as it slowed and swerved to avoid a pile up. The westerners in the care were stunned and silent for a few moments. Our driver also said nothing.
When i asked about it after a few moments, he was dismissive of the event saying simply “it happens all the time”.
I’ve been in a lot of wild traffic. I was in Managua Nicaragua in 1975, where i could swear that the only functioning controls to the taxis were the accelerator and the horn. We had to jump into and out of cabs which never came to a complete stop. In 1991 in Shanghai China i made the mistake of telling a cab driver that there was an extra $5 in it if he got us to the train station on time. The driver immediately got off the road and started driving down the bike path which pedestrians and bike riders had to leap out of his way. But i have never seen traffic like Cairo and Giza.
The faded lines dividing lanes on the highway are all but ignored. Cars tailgate at high speed. No one seemed to use turn indicators for switching lanes. Not more than a few seconds would go by before we passed someone or someone passed us, frequently honking and they moved into lanes of closing traffic opportunities as others were jockeying for position. Not a game for the faint of heart.
When we arrived in Giza, Hawina and i went for a walk down the crowded busy streets at 10 PM. Stores were open, people were everywhere and the traffic anarchy was even more complex, tho dramatically slower. Kids and donkeys and tractors and cars and three wheeled partially open motorized taxis and pedestrians and horses all “shared” the road in a complex game of chicken. Unlike the highway, it seemed safe for the people without vehicles. But there will several times in more congested Giza it was unclear to me which of the 3 or 4 vehicles all heading towards each other, including ours would give way to the others. We saw no bikes.
When i IMed my new friend Mahmoud (who is organizing a speaking gig for me at the university in Qena) of my amazement, he loled and simply replied “Welcome to Egypt.”