Tut, Tut: Egypt museum sorely needs a new site

CAIRO, Egypt — It wasn't exactly what Jonathan and Mary Brown were expecting. The British couple were shocked by their first visit to the old Egyptian Museum, set in the heart of Cairo's busiest downtown square.

"It breaks my heart seeing the monuments kept that way," said Jonathan Brown, a retired real estate investor. "I got into the museum and didn't know which way to go. I couldn't find user-friendly maps, no illustrations. It's also very noisy here. I felt I was at a circus, not a museum."

When the Egyptian Museum was built about 100 years ago, it was host to only 10,000 artifacts. The architecture was French colonial, with a lush, cozy garden and a Nile view.

Today, the museum is surrounded by a concrete jungle of overpasses, skyscrapers, five-star hotels and an endless stream of cars. Moreover, it holds at least 150,000 antiquities from Pharaonic, Greco-Roman, Coptic and Islamic civilizations. The rooms in the King Tut exhibition area were brushed up and supplied with air-conditioning a few years ago. But many others still lack ventilation and humidity control, and some even have their windows open wide, allowing the noise and smoke of the streets to pour in.

"Our museums have been nothing but storage sites, where antiquities are just crumbled over one another," said Zahi Hawass, the head of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities. "It was so depressing, but things are changing now."

Miles to the west of Cairo, near the Giza pyramids, a team of 25 architects, together with 350 construction workers, is busy working on what will be a huge antiquities museum, to be built on a plot of land of 117 "feddans," a measurement roughly equivalent to 121 acres. Egypt has launched a global campaign to fund the project's estimated $550-million costs.

The first money-making effort is "Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs," now at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where visitors are paying $15 to $30 a person for regular tickets and up to $75 for VIP admission.

For the Egyptian government, it's well worthwhile. The Grand Museum of Egypt is expected to open its doors to visitors on the Giza plains by 2009, exhibiting at least 100,000 artifacts from the Pharaonic and Greco-Roman periods.

The government is gambling that the museum will lure an additional 3 million tourists to Egypt every year. That would give a badly needed boost to the country's $6-billion annual tourism industry, whose short-term future has been thrown into doubt by the July bombings in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheik.

A long time coming

The decision to build the museum was issued by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in 1992 but faced almost a decadelong stalemate because of extensive studies, lack of funding and Egypt's notorious bureaucracy.

Yasser Mansour, the 48-year-old chief architect, initially was skeptical about the project when the country's culture minister asked him to get involved in 2001. But "I felt it was a national duty, and I couldn't decline to be part of this giant project that will revolutionize our tourism sector and protect our national treasures," he said. "We now have full government backing to proceed ahead."

Mansour, who worked for several years in the United States, came back to Egypt shortly before he was called to join in the project, designed by Heneghan.Peng Architects, an Irish company that won the international bid for designing the museum's model.

"I don't know how the pharaohs managed with such heat," he jokingly said, wiping the sweat off his forehead under Giza's blazing sun.

The museum, Mansour said, will occupy a desert plateau at the edge of the Nile valley, within sight of the Giza pyramids, one of the world's ancient wonders.

The blueprints for the project show an ambitious design with an alabaster facade and a roof in alignment with the pyramids.

A large triangular gate in the facade will lead into the museum, where an 83-ton statue of Ramses II — which stands today in the heavily polluted Cairo square that bears the pharaoh's name — will greet visitors.

More important, the museum will display King Tut's mummy and other artifacts found in the young pharaoh's tomb. The mummy now lies in its tomb in Egypt's Valley of the Kings.

"That will be the crown of the new museum," Hawass said. "The collection will not be exhibited as it is now in the Egyptian Museum, with items packed one over the other. I'd imagine that each item should deserve a room for itself, exhibited in a civilized way."