Established on 117 feddans, the Grand Egyptian Museum is set to be the world’s largest museum, with the main exhibition built on a third of its total area. The museum includes facilities, entertainment, and commercial buildings next to the museum garden, all of which make the museum a new monument by itself—ready to welcome 8 million visitors per year.
Daily News Egypt was given an exclusive chance to roam the museum halls, which are still under construction. The main building is located on an area of 160,000 metres—making it the world’s largest exhibition. The museum includes 14 restoration labs for all antiquities; wooden, heavy (more than 250 kg), and small antiquities, as well as the Grand Stairwell—on which 100 king statues will be places to showcase the different eras of Ancient Egyptian history—in addition to a conference hall that can accommodate up to 1,000 visitors a day.
Tarek Sayed Tawfik – general supervisor on the project
The Grand Egyptian Museum’s management aims to finalise feasibility studies for cutting down the project’s timeline and will announce a soft opening within two months, as part of President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi’s directive to the Minister of Antiquities.
During an exclusive tour of the museum, Tarek Wafik, the general supervisor of the project, told Daily News Egypt that the museum was originally scheduled for a partial opening at the end of 2018. Now, the ministry has been tasked with opening it mid-2017.
Wafik added that the early opening of the museum requires a different work plan from the current one, which would increase working hours and the number of workers on site.
What is the current rate of construction of the Grand Egyptian Museum?
Rates of work are going well. Almost 70% of concrete construction work has been completed, which was the hardest phase. Other construction projects are 40% complete.
The interiors in some parts of the museum have also been completed to accommodate the antiquities moved to it. The first and second phases, including the restoration labs worth $50m, have been finalised, in addition to the museum’s power plant.
What plan is the museum abiding by to implement the president’s mandate for a partial opening in mid-2017 instead of the end of 2018?
The museum’s administration is currently studying the possibility of intensifying the rate of construction and implementing a new plan to open the museum earlier. This study is expected to take two months.
Foreign tourists do not understand random scheduling. They will need a specific date for the opening in order to schedule their visits. There will be a large worldwide promotional campaign once the opening date is selected.
The intensification of work has already begun: shifts have been increased, more workers have been added, and the work plan has been rearranged. If necessary, we will work on weekends, too.
There are 3,000 to 5,000 workers on site depending on the type of construction. We are currently working 24 hours a day. In the morning we work on the inside of the museum to avoid the heat and move on to the outside of the museum at night.
Is the cost expected to increase with the new plan?
The initial contract was set at $800m in 2002. However, with the increasing cost of materials, the total project is estimated to cost over $1bn. We are currently looking for means to rationalise spending even with intensifying the work.
The Ministry of Antiquities has entered into negotiations with several international bodies, such as the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), to obtain another loan worth $482m to complete the construction work.
JICA has secured $400m of the total project’s cost in a facilitated loan, while the Egyptian government provided $250m, next to EGP 284m last year.
How many artefacts were relocated to the museum so far?
About 38,000 have been moved to the restoration and maintenance centre. The total number expected is 100,000, including 50,000 for the permanent exhibition.
Over 15,000 pieces have been restored up until now, including 2,500 pieces from King Tutankhamun’s tomb that have not been exhibited before.
The collection will be showcased in an interesting way to reveal many details on the king’s social, religious, and political life, as well as the charters of his time during the 18th dynasty.
Where are those pieces coming from?
The ministry is moving artefacts from storage nationwide. This aims to showcase the greatness of the Egyptian state over the centuries and its impact on the world as evidenced by the cultural and archaeological monuments.
The Egyptian Museum in Tahrir sent most pieces, as 50,000 pieces are coming from there for changing exhibitions and archaeological research.
The Egyptian Museum’s halls in Tahrir include over 160,000 pieces exhibited and stored on 10,000 sqm.
There are also artefacts coming from storage houses in Luxor, Minya, Sohag, Assiut, Beni Suef, Fayoum, the Delta, and Alexandria.
The ministry is seeking to deliver a message to visitors that there are numerous sites in Egypt worth visiting more than once.
Will the transfer of such a large number of the artefacts affect the museum in Tahrir or other places?
The relocated antiques mostly come from archaeological storage units. This aims to exhibit them instead of keeping them hidden.
The Egyptian Museum in Tahrir has been criticised for being stacked with artefacts, making it a storage unit itself rather than an exhibition for antiquities. Therefore, reducing the number of its pieces will not have an impact on it, but could even improve it.
Both collections of King Tutankhamun and Queen Hetepheres are scheduled to be moved from Tahrir’s Egyptian Museum.
The ministry has completed the transfer of King Tutankhamen’s collection for maintenance and restoration.
How will the Grand Egyptian Museum be different from other museums?
There is a new and different style for exhibiting artefacts. We will use modern presentation methods of lighting techniques and applications for mobile phones, as well as interactive stations inside the museum.
Museum education is also a very important element. This component was given a space of 7,000 sqm in the museum—almost the same size of the space given to Tutankhamun’s collection of 5,000 artefacts.
The artefacts will also be displayed on large areas to allow for tourist groups to move easily throughout the museum.
Osama Abou El-Khier – executive manager of the Grand Egyptian Museum Restoration Department
Osama Abou El-Khier, the executive manager of the Grand Egyptian Museum Restoration Department, explained that the restoration centre of the museum is part of the second phase of the project. The goal is the restoration of 100,000 artefacts that will be put on display.
He added that the centre contains 14 labs, including seven for restoration and another seven for analysis.
There is also a dedicated heavy monuments section that will equip and restore artefacts weighing more than half a tonne and that cannot be transferred to internal laboratories.
The 80 experts stationed at the labs were selected to include experienced and fresh graduates in order to see that the centre is well equipped to pass on expertise.
The Japanese institution JICA contributed to the training of restoration experts in the heavy monuments section through 10 courses held in Japan and 16 more in packaging in transfer.
The ministry was interested in training and educating experts instead of using expensive moving companies that charge $1,000 for the relocation of each piece.
Experts have so far successfully moved 38,000 artefacts to the labs at the Grand Egyptian Museum. They have also restored 15,000 pieces and maintained 12,600 over the past four years.
About 15% of the received artefacts required expatriate restoration, 30% needed complete restoration, and the remainder only needed maintenance.
The ministry has equipped the lab with the most sophisticated world technology. Some devices cost over EGP 10m.
The total cost of the 14 labs cost a total of EGP 51m.
The labs also hold training courses for all restoration experts across the republic. They are currently training experts from Aswan.
As for the rumours of using gypsum and cement for restoration, El-Kheir said that the current modern techniques and materials are still quite new and were not known by older experts.
He said that the ministry is working to address and correct improper restoration processes by replacing them with newer materials.
Experts now use almost 80% of locally produced materials, where importing has been limited to analysis devices in cooperation with the German Zeiss, El-Kheir added.
Eissa Zidan – primary manager of restoration and transfer of artefacts
Eissa Zidan, the primary manager of the restoration and transportation of antiquities in the Grand Egyptian Museum, told Daily News Egypt that King Mankaraa’s statue arrived last week amongst other royal statues planned to be exhibited on the museum’s great staircase for its opening.
The statue goes back to the era of the fourth family, and weighs about one tonne and has a length of 175cm. It is made of alabaster, and was discovered by American archaeologist George Andrew Resiner in 1908 in the king’s valley temple in the area of Haram.
The statue was transferred to undergo a process of thorough restoration according to a plan by restoration experts in the area of heavy artefacts in order to prepare for the opening of the Grand Egyptian Museum.
Mankaraa’s statue has deteriorated due to weak layers in its structure, as well as previous restoration attempts. The statue’s weak areas were treated before it was packaged and transferred.
Packaging and transfer phases
The packaging process differs from one piece of antiquity to another, in terms of the substance, size, and weight. All pieces go through mass screening in order to determine their weak areas. This allows for appropriate, sufficient, and safe support.
The step following this includes covering the antiquities with Japanese tissue paper, which is acid-free and does not react with the substances from which the artefact is made. Then the piece is packaged in an protective cloth.
The last step in packaging the antiquity is placing it in a wooden holder in an L-shape in order to ensure its stability during the transfer process. There are other types of wooden holders that are specifically designed for the size of the piece, and they are usually square shaped.
The packaging process takes a day, while the transfer process takes up to two days, depending on the location from where the antiquity is transferred.
The ministry has managed to transfer antiquities at a weight of 3.5 tonnes, consisting of medium and heavy items. During the next phase, it aims to transfer antiquities that weigh up to 5 tonnes.
According to the exhibit plan in the Grand Egyptian Museum, about 100 royal pieces are expected to be exhibited on the museum’s grand staircase, where the statues of Khufu, Khafre, and Mankaraa will be placed in parallel to the three pyramids located in the museum’s panorama.
Hossam Rashed – manager of the heavy antiquities zone in the restoration centre
Hossam Rashed, manager of the heavy antiquities zone in the Grand Egyptian Museum, said that all arriving antiquities are documented in pictures, and a special folder for each piece is created before, during, and after restoration. The folder includes information about the piece, including its weight, condition, and historical era.
A future plan is then set before beginning restoration works on any artefact. The plan includes a suggested way for the restoration, which could either be mechanical—which means soft brushes will be used to remove dust—or through organic materials for chemical cleaning and the usage of alkaline solutions.
Egyptian restoration experts in the Grand Egyptian Museum’s restoration centre use many ways of scientific restoration and documentation, as is the case in all museums across the world, like Le Louvre, the British Museum, Boston Museum, and the Metropolitan Museum.
Medhat Abdellah – manager of the wooden antiquities restoration and maintenance laboratory
Medhat Abdellah, manager of the laboratory for wooden antiquities restoration and maintenance, said that the lab is specialised in studying the cultural values of wooden artefacts, in addition to carrying out restoration and maintenance operations of the pieces to be exhibited in the museum after its opening.
The lab gives special care to monitoring and studying how these wooden pieces were created, in terms of the material and substances used by ancient Egyptians, in addition to the techniques of manufacturing and the shapes of the pieces, as well as the method of clutching wooden parts together, all with the purpose of documenting the information to create a reference for archaeologists later.
The lab uses different substances in the restoration and maintenance of wooden artefacts. These substances’ reactions are tested in advance in order to ensure their safety with the artefacts to avoid any negative impacts they might leave on the pieces’ original condition.
The lab can easily access any archaeological data thanks to the database of the restoration centre. Its share of contributions, on the other hand, is represented in publishing scientific research through global conferences in the field of wooden antiquities restoration on a regular basis.
The lab has received about 1,000 wooden antiquities, and about 80% of them have been restored since 2010.
The sizes of the wooden pieces, like coffins, reach a length of 2 meters and a height of 70cm. As for wooden booths in King Tutankhamun’s collection, their length reaches 4 metres, with a height of 4.5 metres.
According to the manager of the museum’s laboratory, the damage rate of arriving pieces does not exceed 20%, whereas the rest of the pieces are in good condition given Egypt’s dry climate.
The lab includes 15 restorers who work according to international standards and rules in order to maintain the stability and safety of the pieces as much as possible without significant changes to their original shape.
Ancient Egyptians used two types of wood in manufacturing their furniture and possessions; this includes wood imported from the ancient state, and local wood.
The local types of wood include sycamore and willow, whereas the imported ones include Lebanese cedar wood, ebony, teak, juniper, and elm.
Some wooden antiquities made of sycamore arrive infested with insects, while other hardwood pieces arrived in a better shape. This wood was used in making boats.
Ancient Egyptians painted the surface of wood with certain materials in order to make them smooth and create an easy space to draw and decorate on them. The painting substances include those currently being used, like calcium sulphate along with animal glue.