Between Old Norms and Current Trends Lies the Grand Egyptian Museum

Nick Leech

International Museum Day is an event celebrated in May. It attracts thousands of participants in many countries from Greenland to Tasmania, from Taiwan to Senegal. As usual, this year’s commemoration was organized on a theme, this time the rather unwieldy “Hyperconnected Museums: New Approaches, New Publics.” It is one, nonetheless, that resonates with the project of museums around the world. In cities such as Amsterdam, for example, museums might host overnight parties that gather the local community into their embrace, seeking to tighten the bond between historical and fine art institutions and their indigenous constituency. Sadly, such is not necessarily and not often the case in this part of the world.

The Grand Egyptian Museum – the addition of “Grand” to the name is a stroke of genius that creates the people-friendly acronym, GEM – is expected to at least partly open later this year. Before it does, the GEM might want to take some cues from the current international trend of inclusivity, as opposed to the, unfortunately, time-honored norm of the region that establishes museums as representatives of an exclusive high culture. Indeed, the GEM, an institution whose stated aim is to use technology to establish itself as one of Egyptology’s most interconnected and global centers of excellence, might also want to extend its use of high-tech as a means to connect to the people of its host city, Cairo.

In architectural and urban terms, the GEM is a regional exemplar, albeit in ways that its curators and designers might not have envisaged. Rather than to a worldwide community of Egyptologists and virtual tourists, the Grand Egyptian Museum instead exhibits a profoundly local connectedness with the chain of upscale hotels, golf courses and high-density real-estate developments that have formed around the northern edge of the Giza Plateau, home to the Great Pyramids and the Sphinx. Squeezed between a housing estate, a highway and a string of 5-star hotels, the fan-shaped museum occupies one of the last available locations to offer a glimpse of the main attractions, which sit 2 kilometers to the south.

It is a difficult site, not least because the museum has to negotiate a 50-meter incline that descends from the plateau to the Nile Valley, while maintaining views of the Great Pyramid, the Pyramid of Khafre and the Pyramid of Menkaure, each of which will be visible through the end of one of the museum’s long halls.

Unlike new museums in other parts of the Middle East, which have been used as anchor tenants for wider urban regeneration and commercial real estate developments, the Grand Egyptian Museum has come late to the Giza Plateau’s transformation. Nevertheless, it looks set to act as a kind of keystone, not just in the government’s plans for reviving Egypt’s tourist-focused economy, but in an arc of development that heralds the increasing gentrification of the Giza Plateau.

For almost as long as tourists have been visiting the pyramids, the final stage of any journey to the monuments has involved the negotiation of successive waves of hawkers, guides and more recently taxi drivers, a situation recently described as an “open zoo” by the supervisor in charge of the latest phase of the Giza Plateau Development Project.

A multimillion-dollar regeneration scheme, the project has implemented a series of measures since 2011 that have been carried out in the name of improving the tourist experience, but which have effectively encircled and privatized the public spaces of the plateau. The result is an airbrushed view of the pyramids and of Egypt, framed by hotel windows and the needs of a tourist economy in a country and a region where public spaces have been viewed with suspicion since the events of the Arab Spring.

The Giza Necropolis has always been a site where tourists have played out their fantasies. But now, surrounded by fences, protected by gates and monitored by state-of-the-art security systems, it is becoming a stage where many local Egyptians appear to be not only unwelcome but entirely surplus to requirements.

At a time when the International Council of Museums is encouraging its members to reach out to new audiences and local communities, the Giza Plateau Development Project places the GEM in an invidious situation. Furthermore, the plan to introduce a fleet of electric vehicles to ferry visitors between the museum precincts and the sites will turn the new museum into a checkpoint at precisely the time when it’s being asked to open up the gates. How the Grand Egyptian Museum will resolve this contradiction, between catering for the tourism economy and serving Egyptians’ access to their patrimony, remains to be seen. But it is clearly an issue best addressed soon, before the GEM open all its doors.

Nick Leech is a writer and qualified landscape architect who specializes in the art, architecture and heritage of the Gulf and wider Middle East.