With big plans and few resources, Cairo’s Coptic Museum is getting some help from private donors and friends
by Dominika Maslikowski
Photography by Mohsen Allam
The remains of the Monastery of St. Jeremiah, dating back to sixth and seventh centuries in Saqqara, give off a feeling of serenity as they stand on display in the airy courtyard of the Coptic Museum in Fustat. First excavated between 1906 and 1909 by British archaeologist J.E. Quibell, the monastery is thought to have been founded by Jeremiah himself and served for centuries as a wall-protected space for monks to meditate and pray.
The stone pulpit with six steps is one of the most important pieces in the museum, says assistant curator Eman Abd el Hamid, but it isn’t displayed to its full advantage. There should be a long line of columns leading up to the pulpit to give the visitor a sense of the grandeur of the original, she explains. But those columns are now scattered throughout the exhibit and they need to be re-arranged to bring the pulpit into focus, Abd el Hamid says gliding swiftly around the courtyard in high heels.
Preserving the treasures of Egypt’s heritage is a struggle for many museums facing dwindling tourism receipts and insufficient state funding. Restoration of antiquities isn’t high on the priority list as the country goes through the latest round of elections and focuses on regaining security. But the Coptic Museum is going against the odds with the help of dedicated friends working to finance much-needed conservation, and a team of specialists outlining a plan to upgrade the museum.
“We have a lot of plans, but no funding,” says Aida Youssef, in charge of documents and restoration. “There’s a great discussion and everyone thinks they’re experts. We’re discussing now how to organize the displays. By theme, or by items that need the same temperature? We’re discussing plans to urgently open the library. The manuscripts are considered treasures. The library is the priority.”
The Coptic Museum, established by Marcus Simaika Pasha and opened in 1910, currently holds some 3,500 pieces on exhibit. The warehouse holds three times as much. The blueprints for an extension were ready, but financial support from the Ministry of Antiquities withered and put those plans on hold.
The museum had undergone an extensive renovation that addressed the historic villa’s infrastructure and reopened in 2006, but Aclimandos says maintanence and upgrades are still needed. “Last year the museum suffered from a water leak, [with] part of a pre-fab ceiling being dismantled, and wood damage due to rats,” he explains. Experts from the Victoria and Albert Museum also warned them the lighting systems were too strong.
A new lighting system is now a top priority, says General Director Mervet Megally, to avoid permanently harming the museum’s sizable collection of textiles. The museum, which once had a dock at its door with a branch of the Nile River stretching to the area, also needs to be drained of the deep underground water, Megally adds. The humidity is affecting the museum’s infrastructure and in one wall of the old wing has caused the paint to peel.
The most crucial task is opening the library, Megally says of the museum’s vast collection of some 5,000 manuscripts and 7,000 old books that have for several years laid in storage unaccessible to the public because of a lack of funding to renew the premises. “If we begin now, the library and manuscripts will take two years to finish [restoring and opening to the public,]” she says. “The money must come from businessmen or donations.”
“In about a month we’ll submit a plan to the Ministry of Antiquities so they can look it over and approve the funding or not, but it will be difficult to fund all of these things,” says Museum Director Mousa Naguib. “We have to have donations from outside of Egypt.”
There are a lot of ideas to be put into the plan, Abd el Hamid says. Some exhibits are not properly lit or displayed at eye-level, while the labels next to many of the museum’s pieces contain descriptions of the item with no historical background or explanation. Many display cases are run-down to the point where cleaning them is impossible and they must be replaced with a sturdier material such as marble, Abd el Hamid says. The glass slides out sideways and it’s hard to clean or replace light bulbs that illuminate the displays, while the museum’s air conditioning gets turned off at night and needs to be upgraded to a system that provides cooling 24/7.
The 8,000-square-meter Coptic Museum contains Coptic murals from the 5th through 11th century, as well as stone artwork, a collection of rare icons, metal coins, woodwork and ivory pieces. The entire first floor is mostly stone pieces and sculptures, while the second floor holds the colorful textiles with images of Jesus, the Virgin Mary or Coptic saints. Organized partly chronologically, the museum starts off with the Greco-Roman period in which influences from ancient Egyptian art can be seen in the reliefs.
Help from the Friends
The to-do list of upgrades may seem daunting, especially when nobody is certain where all the funding will come from, but the Coptic Museum is a rare specimen on the museum circuit because it has a dedicated association of supporters.
The Friends of the Coptic Museum Association announced on May 9 that they will set up a trust fund to help finance the much-needed conservation and to build an extension. During a fundraising gala dinner that evening, the association raised some $50,000 for the museum, about half of the total amount needed to fund the most urgent projects, Chairman Yousri Aclimandos says.
“We are trying to put together a trust fund that will allow the association to have a yearly income for periodic and preventative maintenance at the museum and maybe even help finance our ambitious plans for an extension,” Aclimandos said at the event.
The association, founded in 2006 as a cultural entity of both Christians and Muslims who work to support the museum, is looking for more donors to contribute to the trust fund that would pay for maintenance and for the three- or four-floor extension where an additional 3,000 to 4,000 pieces would be put on exhibit.
The Egyptian-Danish digital marketing agency 5d also has ideas for a digital campaign for the museum that would include a sleek website, virtual tours, a mobile phone app and even interactive holograms in the shapes of figures from Coptic history. The company is looking for donors to make that happen, and says there’s a lot of opportunity to transform the museum into a cutting-edge facility that would attract young visitors.
In the meantime, the staff at the museum were busy entertaining the extra crowds during a national event on May 18 when all state museums offered free admission to Egyptians. A puppet show was set up in a courtyard as groups of young women in bright hijabs offered face painting and games to children.
“You know, this festival and the games for the kids and the face painting — it was all paid for by the curators’ efforts,” Youssef says, smiling. “The curators organized the festival with their own funds.” et