The Kiss of Death


Dr. Zahi Hawass, new Egyptian Minister of State for Antiquities

Dr. Zahi Hawass, the bombastic, clownish pseudo-archaeologist who has tyrannized, bullied, and manipulated Egyptologists and Egyptian villagers alike for years now, today officially accepted President Hosni Mubarak’s appointment as Minister of State for Antiquities in the desperate, ghost government that has just been formed.

Hawass has thrown in his lot completely with the dying order.  Antiquities are the least of Egypt’s problems right now– but all those who are concerned with them have another major reason to wonder what the future will bring…

Alerted by Nigel Hetherington

From the AP   January 31, 2011

Egypt’s President Announces New Government

by THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak swore in a new Cabinet on Monday, replacing one dissolved as a concession to unprecedented anti-government protests.

In the most significant change, the interior minister — who heads internal security forces — was replaced. A retired police general, Mahmoud Wagdi, was named to replace Habib el-Adly, who is widely despised by protesters for brutality shown by security forces.

Still, the new Cabinet is unlikely to satisfy the tens of thousands of protesters who have taken to the streets in cities across Egypt the past week demanding the ouster of Mubarak and his entire regime. When Mubarak announced the dissolving of the previous government late Friday and named his intelligence chief Omar Suleiman as his vice president, protesters on the streets rejected the move as an attempt by Mubarak, Egypt’s authoritarian ruler of nearly 30 years, to cling to power.

The new line-up of Cabinet ministers announced on state television included stalwarts of Mubarak’s regime but purged several of the prominent businessmen who held economic posts and have engineered the country’s economic liberalization policies the past decades. Many Egyptians resented the influence of millionaire politician-moguls, who were close allies of the president’s son, Gamal Mubarak, long thought to be the heir apparent.

In the new Cabinet, Mubarak retained his long-serving defense minister, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, and Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit.

The longest-serving Cabinet minister, Culture Minister Farouq Hosni, was replaced by Gaber Asfour, a widely respected literary figure.

Egypt’s most famous archaeologist, Zahi Hawass, was named state minister for antiquities, a new post.

Newly sworn-in Mubarak government listens to the President as demonstrators mass in Tahrir Square, 1 Feb. 2011. Egyptian TV


Click image to watch clip

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Archaeology and the Criminal In Us

As we watch the events unfold in Cairo, as the flames rise from the NDP Headquarters, there are fears that the Cairo Museum would/will be damaged or destroyed.  Wild rumors of human chains protecting the museum from looters mirror the equally emotional cries (mostly by archaeologists) of the barbaric looting of the Baghdad Museum.

Antiquities are seen as an unalloyed good, the property of all humanity, above politics.  But are they just the fetishes of the powerful, tokens and illustrations of a narrative that separates the haves from the have-nots?

The fact is that the administration of antiquities in Egypt has been part and parcel of an arrogant and capricious regime. Past folds into Present in an insidious way.

Billboard at the entrance to Luxor Photo: Brian McMorrow

The monuments and relics of Ancient Egypt have not been administered for the good of the Egyptian people but have been mercilessly exploited as an economic cash cow for foreign tourism and have served as the propaganda icons of a historical narrative (of a “timeless” Egyptian essence) that has been used in so many ways to justify the autocratic centralization of the Sadat-Mubarak regime.

What we are seeing now in the streets of Cairo and other cities give lie to the idea of inevitable pharaonism and peasant docility.  It may not last. Who knows?  But it reveals, at least for a brief moment, the empty assertions of the official narrative.

And that brings us to archaeology.  The cowardly sycophants who have groveled for excavation permits, humiliatingly deferred to the uninformed press conferences of government functionaries about their own discoveries, and who have obsequiously pandered to the strange ravings and “mummy chasings” of a powerful man who tried his best to turn Egyptology into a bizarre kind of unlettered, unreflective entertainment should take time to reflect on how much they supported the regime that is now frantically trying to save itself.

It is interesting how so much of the behavior of colonial and neo-colonial archaeologists and the finds that are often so wildly acclaimed and displayed around the world are themselves evidence of exploitation, tyranny, and privilege wrested from the long-suffering people of Egypt.  It’s true not only of Egypt, but so many of the places where “expeditions” uncover the physical remains of what will inevitably become a retrospectively self-congratulatory narrative of power by and for those who are now powerful.

W.H. Auden put it best in the coda to his last poem, Archaeology, written in 1974, not long after a visit to digs of ruined fortifications, burnt tyrants’ palaces, and “national” museums filled with their selfishly gathered treasures throughout the Middle East:

From Archaeology

one moral, at least, may be drawn,

to wit, that all

our school text-books lie.

What they call History

is nothing to vaunt of,

being made, as it is,

by the criminal in us:

goodness is timeless.

And as if to underline the point that fine art archaeology has been fully implicated in the dark side of human civilization, just look at the news report of this new exhibition in Berlin, where the brutality of collection, exhibition, and its destruction are all deemed marginal factors– far less important than the main achievement of the precious artifacts being brought back to wholeness again:

From the Art News  – Saturday January 29, 2011

Statues Devastated in World War II Go on Show at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin

By Geir Moulson, Associated Press

BERLIN (AP)- The ancient gods and fantastical creatures going on show in Berlin this week have made an unlikely comeback from near-destruction.

Unearthed in present-day Syria a century ago, the 3,000-year-old basalt statues and stone reliefs in the exhibition, “The Tell Halaf Adventure,” shattered into thousands of pieces when their Berlin home was destroyed by bombing in 1943.

Fragments and a partial reconstructed sculpture are on display at the exhibition 'The Tell Halaf Adventure' at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin on Thursday, Jan. 27, 2011. The exhibition shows roughly 3,000-year old statues that have been pieced together over the past decade from fragments left behind when Berlin's Tell Halaf Museum was bombed in 1943. After the wartime bombing, the rubble was salvaged and stored for decades in the Pergamon Museum's cellars. Restorers sifted through some 27,000 fragments to restore the sculptures. AP Photo/Markus Schreiber.

The rubble was rescued, then slumbered in the vaults of the capital’s Pergamon Museum, then in East Berlin, for decades before a painstaking restoration project started in 2001.

Over the past decade, restorers sifted through around 27,000 fragments of rubble and gradually reassembled most of them.

About 40 resurrected figures — including a pair of lions that once bared their teeth at the entrance of a palace at Tell Halaf in northeastern Syria, a sphinx and a long-tressed female figure from a monumental grave — go on show to the public at the Pergamon Museum on Friday.

“No one could have imagined several years ago that this exhibition would be possible,” Michael Eissenhauer, the director of Berlin’s state museums, said Thursday. “Tell Halaf had been forgotten. It was thought to be certain that the pieces which disappeared in 1943 were irretrievably lost.”

German archaeologist Max von Oppenheim led excavations at the Tell Halaf site between 1911 and 1913. He first put the figures on display in Berlin in 1930, at a private museum in a former iron foundry that was destroyed during the war.

Oppenheim arranged for the rubble to be salvaged and stored in hopes of one day recreating the statues — but it would be decades after his death in 1946 before that dream was realized.

During Germany’s postwar division, the rubble lay across the Cold War divide from the collection’s owner, the Max von Oppenheim Foundation. Only in the 1990s, after German reunification, did officials start examining whether the statues might be restored.

The foundation helped fund the several-million-euro cost of the restoration.

For the full story, click here.

Sensing Weakness?

It’s interesting to see how dependent heritage “political correctness” is on the flow of politics.

Watching events unfold in Egypt– and maybe approach the tipping point– it’s instructive how the strident, uncompromising demands of a Mubarak functionary are now met with an uncompromising “no”…

From The Independent  January 26, 2011

Germany refuses to return bust to Egypt

By Tony Paterson in Berlin

A diplomatic row between Germany and Egypt over rights to the 3,400-year-old bust of the fabled Queen Nefertiti reopened yesterday when Berlin flatly refused to accept an official request from Cairo to return the priceless artefact to the banks of the Nile.

Nefertiti Bust in the Ägyptisches Museum Berlin. Photo: Magnus Manske

The world-renowned bust has been on public display in Berlin since 1923 following its discovery by the German archaeologist Ludwig Borchardt at Amarna in 1912. It rates as one of the capital’s top tourist attractions and is seen by some 500,000 visitors a year.

Egypt, which argues that Germany obtained the bust illegally and by deceit, has been lobbying for Nefertiti’s return for more than half a century. But on Monday, Zahi Hawass, the head of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, declared that an “official request” had been sent to Berlin demanding the bust be handed back.

“We ask that this unique treasure be returned to the possession of its rightful owners, the Egyptian people,” the statement said.

Mr Hawass said the demand had received the full backing of the Egyptian Prime Minister and Culture Minister and was submitted to both the German government and the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, which runs Berlin’s Neues Museum, where Nefertiti is on permanent display.

But Germany dismissed Egypt’s demands yesterday. “This is not an official request,” a foreign ministry spokesman insisted. “An official request is from one government to another,” he added. He said Germany, which argues that the bust is too fragile even to be loaned to Egypt, would continue to reject demands for Nefertiti’s return.

Tax Cuts for the Rich – Budget Cuts for the Past

The budget targeting of historic preservation and heritage programs (of all kinds) is based on an assumption that serious public reflection on the past is just a disposable luxury.  Sure there is waste, elitism, racism, chauvinism, and class favoritism in some areas of the historic preservation movement.  And sure we need to be smart and effective how we allocate and spend public funds.

Yet among the most promising trends in recent years is the growing attention to community-based heritage activities, increasing inclusiveness in the decisions about who or what gets included in “official” commemoration, and the widening awareness that cultural identity– and even more important cultural co-existence– is absolutely essential, especially in hard times.

A bugetarily microscopic initiative like the Preserve America program has been branded by Republicans as wasteful (along with other useless things like Public Broadcasting and the voluntary US contributions to UN activities).  More troubling still is the fact that President Obama has apparently agreed about the disposability of heritage programs of all kinds.

So what do we have left of our national memories beyond the factless history-babble of Glenn Beck and the wildly mythic notions of the Tea Party Movement?  The official neglect of our collective memories has a tremendous cost.

 

History at no cost to the taxpayer. Does it look intelligent to you? Photo from Steve M. blog/Fox News

 

The cuts will deepen our national historical dementia by increasing our inability to distinguish between fact-based reflection and myth-based assertions.  No less damaging, the continuing privatization of heritage “attractions” as venues for “edu-tainment” will further trivialize the multimedia costume drama that we increasingly confuse with the past.

And don’t assume that this is just an American problem:  outsourcing of conservation responsibilities for historic districts and sites to retail, residential, and tourism developers is a worldwide phenomenon.  We have to carefully consider our priorities, examine the impacts of heritage on society, and be aware of the dangers of public amnesia.

From http://www.governing.com   January 14, 2011

Feds Threaten Major Cuts to Historic Preservation Grants

Posted By Ryan Holeywell

President Obama and the GOP don’t tend to agree on much these days. But they’ve found common ground in one unusual place: Both want to cut millions of dollars in historic preservation grants.

This week, Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Tex.), a GOP deputy whip and member of the Republican Study Committee’s steering committee, introduced a bill that would cut $150 billion over five years through nearly 50 types of spending reductions across the board.

Some of the cuts are politically charged, like rescinding voluntary payments to the United Nations and eliminating the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Others are common-sense proposals taken from the president’s fiscal commission, such as requiring the sale of excess federal property and reducing federal travel costs.

A little-noticed proposal was a plan to eliminate two programs that fund historic preservation grants: Save America’s Treasures and Preserve America.

According to a House-issued breakdown of Brady’s proposal:

This amendment would eliminate funding for the Save America’s Treasures and Preserve America Program, as called for by the President who said both programs are duplicative and underperforming.

The Preserve America Grant Program was established in 2003 (as) a grant program within (the Department of the Interior) to provide ‘planning funding to support preservation efforts through heritage tourism, education, and historic preservation planning.’

The Save America’s Treasures Program in Department of Interior awards grants to preserve historically significant properties. This account is also heavily earmarked. $4.6 million is appropriated for Preserve in FY 2010 and $25 million is appropriated for Save. The Department of the Interior oversees multiple, overlapping historic preservation programs. Additionally, every federal agency is required to maintain a historic preservation program and must appoint a historic preservation officer and comply with the National Historic Preservation Act. In addition, there are numerous other federal grant programs and tax provisions aimed at historic preservation.

But Patrick J. Lally, director of congressional affairs for The National Trust for Historic Preservation, said Brady is downplaying the grants’ significance. Save America’s Treasures is the only federal grant dedicated exclusively to physical restoration of nationally significant sites, and it represents a significant portion of all federal funding for historic preservation.

The historic preservation fund, which is part of the Department of Interior, is usually funded at about $75 million to $78 million, and Save America’s Treasures usually makes up about $25 million to $30 million of that total. Eliminating it would be a huge blow to federal preservation efforts, Lally tells FedWatch. “It’s not like when lawmakers propose elimination of these funds they go to another account within the historic preservation fund,” Lally says. “They go away.”

Save America’s Treasures has provided funding to restore the Montgomery bus where Rosa Parks made her stand, the workshop where Thomas Edison created his inventions and the cottage to which President Lincoln retreated during hot Washington summers, among other projects. Since its 1998 launch, it has provided nearly $294 million to more than 1,100 preservation projects.

While Save America’s Treasures focuses on physical work, Preserve America grants provide funding for things like marketing, research and digitizing records — ancillary work that helps to promote “heritage tourism” to cultural and natural sites. For example, Honolulu was awarded $150,000 to develop programs to showcase its Chinatown, and Oxford, Miss. received $75,000 to fund exhibits about the life of Supreme Court Justice L.Q.C. Lamar in his historic home. Preserve America has provided more than $17 million in grants to more than 225 projects.

This time, the programs are being targeted by a House Republican. But a year ago, it was President Obama who proposed cutting the programs in his 2010-2011 budget. White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer wrote on the White House blog that they “lack rigorous performance metrics and evaluation efforts so the benefits are unclear.”

That decision was especially unusual, given that the White House has previously been a supporter of the programs. In March 2009, Obama signed legislation that permanently authorized them, and in December of that year, First Lady Michelle Obama touted Save America’s Treasures as a way to “empower communities all over the country to rescue and restore this priceless heritage.”

Lally says he believes Obama’s proposal to cut the programs last year was an oversight. Congress ultimately preserved funding for the programs, largely due to the fact that Save America’s Treasures has a record of creating jobs (16,000 since its inception), Lally says. The White House’s budget will be released next month, and preservations are anxiously waiting to see whether it will against target the two programs, like Brady has already done. And given that deficit reduction has been the theme repeated ad nauseum by the new House Republican leadership, the future of the programs could be in jeopardy.

The fact that the two programs are fighting for their survival is especially ironic, considering the $29.6 allotted to them is a pittance of the overall federal budget. Nancy Schamu, executive director of the National Conference of State Historic Preservation Officers, tells FedWatch she doesn’t know why preservation funding is being targeted, especially since it’s basically “decimal dust” in the grand scheme of things.

“That’s something you’ll have to ask the bill drafters,” she says.

Winner Announced: The Worst Museum Concept of 2011

Well it’s only January but I’m ready to declare the newly opened multimedia exhibit at the Yad Mordechai Kibbutz Museum in Israel as the most tasteless, insensitive, and utterly banal attempt at heritage presentation of 2011.

And the award for the most outstanding purveyor of trashy heritage goes to Mr. David Gafni, chief designer of such politically and religiously loaded heritage sites as Tel Aviv’s Beth Hatefutsoth, the Museum of the Jewish People (former the Museum of the Jewish Diaspora ); Jerusalem’s Western Wall tunnels museum; the Ghetto Fighters’ House Museum, in Kibbutz Lohamei Hageta’ot, the Illegal Detention Camp Museum in Atlit, the Historical Museum of Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, and the museum at the memorial site for the fallen of the Israeli intelligence community. In addition, he was the house designer of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.  Despite– or perhaps in light of– his long career of packaging history and culture into”visitable” attractions, Gafni should be seriously considered for a lifetime kitsch achievement award.

Of course, the idea of using multimedia to make history and heritage more exciting and attractive has always courted the danger that trivialization and entertainment would be the inevitable outcomes.  But now with immersive environments and interactive experience the watchwords of the museum biz, the Past– to paraphrase David Lowenthal’s famous epigram that “The Past is a Theme Park”–is well on its way to becoming a video game.

The following report from the Israeli daily Haaretz speaks for itself.  Gafni and his team of concept developers and exhibit designers who accepted money for this truly awful multimedia presentation ought to be ashamed of themselves.

From Haaretz – January 20, 2011

Experience the Warsaw Ghetto

Visitors to a new exhibit at the Yad Mordechai Museum can take a virtual train to a virtual death camp, and feel the cannon-fire in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Is the Disneyland approach the only way to interest today’s kids in Holocaust history?

By Yuval Saar

One of the first stops made by visitors to the new Warsaw Ghetto Uprising exhibit in the Yad Mordechai Museum, in Kibbutz Yad Mordechai, is the projection of a yellow star on their clothing. By moving your body, you put the virtual patch in the place where it belongs. It’s part of the concept of bringing viewers into the experience.

A day in the Virtual Holocaust: Yellow stars are projected onto museum visitors. Photo: David Gary

Later on, in order to peek at a model of the Warsaw Ghetto one takes a virtual journey on a railway car to a death camp. After the doors shut, with a realistic-sounding noise, the trip begins. A subwoofer speaker under the car simulates the sounds of traveling by train, while images of the ghetto, and then of the extermination camps, go past the barbed-wire-covered windows.

The freight car doesn’t actually move. Its “journey” leads to two of the exhibit’s high points.

The first is a huge, 1:100 scale model of the Warsaw Ghetto, with all the buildings as they were prior to its destruction. As stories from the ghetto are projected onto a background screen, walls and buildings in the model are lit in accordance with the narrative.

The second high point is the sound-and-light show of the main stages of the ghetto revolt and the recreation of a room in Mila 18, the famed bunker headquarters of the Jewish resistance. Against a background wall of burned bricks, the events play out, with museum visitors in the middle: Cannons fire shells, houses explode and fall down, guns are fired, planes are bombing, sirens, shouts and the crying of babies – fire and death all around. All in order to thrill audiences and make them part of the experience. The jury is still out as to whether this Warsaw-Ghetto Disneyland, whose official public opening is tomorrow, is the only way to make the history of the Holocaust real to young viewers.

The Yad Mordechai Museum is not the first one in Israel or abroad to tackle the challenge of conveying history in a way that will grab the attention of today’s “instant thrills” generation, for whom the Holocaust is not a top priority. That is apparently also the reason that the museum staff often use words like “exciting,” “unique” and “experiences,” demonstrating a surrender to trends that are problematic at best, or populist at worst. A press release boasts that the new exhibit “has not yet been seen in museums that deal with the Holocaust in Israel and the world over.”

The designer of the exhibit, David Gafni, doesn’t hesitate to say that among his sources of inspiration were Epcot Center in Orlando, Florida. “I wanted to cause people who come from far away to say that there’s something very special here that doesn’t exist anywhere else, something that’s impossible to send in a picture or by email,” he explains.

Read more– if you have the stomach to do so– by clicking here.

A Deal With the Devil, West African Style

From Wikipedia:

A deal with the Devil, pact with the Devil, or Faustian bargain is a cultural motif widespread in the West, best exemplified by the legend of Faust and the figure of Mephistopheles, but elemental to many Christian folktales. In the Aarne-Thompson typological catalog, it lies in category AT 756B – “The devil’s contract.”

According to traditional Christian belief in witchcraft, the pact is between a person and Satan or any other demon (or demons); the person offers his or her soul in exchange for diabolical favors. Those favors vary by the tale, but tend to include youth, knowledge, wealth, or power. It was also believed that some persons made this type of pact just as a sign of recognizing the Devil as their master, in exchange for nothing. Regardless, the bargain is a dangerous one, as the price of the Fiend’s service is the wagerer’s soul. The tale may have a moralizing end, with eternal damnation for the foolhardy venturer. Conversely it may have a comic twist, in which a wily peasant outwits the Devil, characteristically on a technical point.

But who’s making the deal here?  And who’s paying the price?

As a World Heritage site, Djenné, Mali, must preserve its mud-brick buildings, from the Great Mosque, in the background, to individual homes. Photo: Tyler Hicks/New York Times

From the New York Times  January 9, 2011

Mali City Rankled by Rules for Life in Spotlight

By NEIL MacFARQUHAR

DJENNÉ , Mali — Abba Maiga stood in his dirt courtyard, smoking and seething over the fact that his 150-year-old mud-brick house is so culturally precious he is not allowed to update it — no tile floors, no screen doors, no shower.

Who wants to live in a house with a mud floor?” groused Mr. Maiga, a retired riverboat captain.

With its cone-shaped crenellations and palm wood drainage spouts, the grand facade seems outside time and helps illustrate why this ancient city in eastern Mali is an official World Heritage site.

But the guidelines established by Unesco, the cultural arm of the United Nations, which compiles the heritage list, demand that any reconstruction not substantially alter the original.

“When a town is put on the heritage list, it means nothing should change,” Mr. Maiga said. “But we want development, more space, new appliances — things that are much more modern. We are angry about all that.”

It is a cultural clash echoed at World Heritage sites across Africa and around the world. While it may be good for tourism, residents complain of being frozen in time like pieces in a museum — their lives proscribed so visitors can gawk.

“The issue in Djenné is about people getting comfort, using the right materials without compromising the architectural values,” said Lazare Eloundou Assomo, the chief of the African unit of Unesco’s World Heritage Center.

Mr. Assomo ticked off a list of sites facing similar tension, including the island of St.-Louis in neighboring Senegal, the island of Lamu in Kenya, the entire island of Mozambique off the coast of the nation by the same name, or Asian and European cities like Lyon, France.

Here in Djenné, the striking Great Mosque is what put the town on the map. It is the largest mud-brick structure in the world, so unique that it looks as if it might have landed from another planet, an imposing sand castle looming over the main square. The architectural style, known as Sudanese, is native to the Sahel.

A trio of unique minarets — square, tapering towers topped by pointed pillars and crowned by an ostrich egg — dominate the facade. Palm tree boards poked into the mosque in rows like toothpicks create a permanent scaffolding that allows residents to swarm over the building to replaster the mud, an annual February ritual involving the entire town.

Djenné is the less famous but better preserved sister city to Timbuktu. Both reached their zenith of wealth and power in the 16th century by sitting at the crossroads of Sahara trade routes for goods like gold, ivory and slaves.

The town was also a gateway that helped spread Islam regionally. When the king converted in the 13th century, he leveled his palace and built a mosque. Mali’s French colonizers eventually oversaw its reconstruction in 1907.

The Grand Mosque was again near collapse when the Agha Khan Foundation arrived to begin a $900,000 restoration project, said Josephine Dilario, one of two supervising architects. The annual replastering had more than doubled the width of the walls and added a yard of mud to the roof. It was too heavy, even with the forest of thick pillars inside the mosque supporting the high ceiling — one for each of the 99 names of God.

In 2006, the initial restoration survey ignited a riot. Protesters sacked the mosque’s interior, attacked city buildings and destroyed cars. The uprising was apparently rooted in the simmering tension among the 12,000 townsfolk, particularly the young, who felt forced to live in squalor while the mosque imam and a few prominent families raked in the benefits from tourism.

The frustration seems to have lingered. While the mosque graces the national seal, residents here appear markedly more sullen about tourism than in many other Malian cities. They often glower rather than smile, and they tend to either ask for money or stomp off when cameras are pointed in their direction.

With the mosque restoration nearing completion, the town is focusing attention on other critical problems — raw sewage and the restoration of the nearly 2,000 houses.

“There is a kind of tension, a difficulty that has to be resolved by not locking people into the traditional and authentic architecture,” said Samuel Sidibé, the director of Mali’s National Museum in Bamako, the capital…

For full story, click here.