Adoration of powerful leaders + allure of guiltless colonial treasure hunting + pay-per-view family entertainment = the survival strategy of 21st century museums.
Listen to the promo and recognize the subtext. Too much wealth and power flows through too few hands.
Time for Egyptology to experience its own Tahrir Square?
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
–Percy Bysshe Shelley 1818
Interesting signs of the times (and of the increasingly brand-named, officialized, and internetified Heritage World). Just look at these two recent developments relating to the site of Auschwitz and ponder awhile:
1.) In the summer of 2007, the World Heritage Committee approved official change of name of World Heritage Site from “The Auschwitz Concentration Camp” to “Auschwitz Birkenau German Nazi Concentration Camp (1940-1945)” upon the request of the Polish government, seeking to distance itself as much as possible in time and responsibility from that very unlovely heritage attraction on their soil.
2.) And, now in January 2011, as if the clear marking of extraterritorial status for unpleasant heritage sites (and acts!) in the real world were not enough, a similar move has been taken in cyberspace:
From Agence France Press, February 2,2011
(AFP) – 3 days ago
WARSAW — Poland’s culture minister said Tuesday he had asked museums at former Nazi death camps to drop their Polish .pl Internet suffix to help counter the false impression they were Polish-run.
The minister, Bogdan Zdrojewski, told Polish news agency PAP he had written to the directors of three museums in Poland asking them to use other suffixes for their websites, such as the more neutral, pan-European .eu.
“I’ve asked them to use the appropriate term systematically,” Zdrojewski said.
Warsaw keenly watches the global media for descriptions of such camps as “Polish” because it says the term — even if used simply as a geographical indicator — can give the impression that Poland bore responsibility for Nazi Germany’s World War II genocide…
For full article, click here.
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Do nation-states have the sovereign right to externalize unpleasant heritage and exclude it from their national internet domains? At least they seem to have the means…
So we are reassured by the protectors of cultural heritage that Egypt’s antiquities are secure– pompously announced by a newly appointed minister of a brutal government that sends in violent thugs to injure and intimidate the protestors who will not bend to their will!
Shame on those who care most of all for antiquarian relics! Bloody battles now rage around the Egyptian Museum. What about the people of Egypt? Are they now more secure as well?
From the NY Times 1 Feb 2011
by Kate Taylor
A vast majority of Egypt’s museums and archaeological sites are secure and have not been looted, Zahi Hawass, Egypt’s chief antiquities official, said in a telephone interview on Tuesday. He also rejected comparisons between the current situation in Egypt and scenes of chaos and discord that resulted in the destruction of artifacts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“People are asking me, ‘Do you think Egypt will be like Afghanistan?’ ” he said. “And I say, ‘No, Egyptians are different — they love me because I protect antiquities.’ ”
Mr. Hawass, who has never been shy about promoting his work, described two episodes of looting that he said took place Friday night.
At the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, thieves looking for gold broke 70 objects, including two sculptures of Tutankhamen, and took two skulls from a research lab before being stopped as they were leaving the museum. Mr. Hawass said that they had first been caught by civilians, who fought the thieves until soldiers arrived and detained them. He said that the damaged objects could all be restored.
In the second episode, he said, armed Bedouins looted a storage site on the Sinai Peninsula, where objects were being stored for a future museum, and took six boxes. But Mr. Hawass said that after he made statements on television and radio demanding the objects’ return and warning the thieves that they would not be able to sell them, 288 objects were left in the street on Tuesday morning and recovered by the police. He said he would not know until a review was completed how many objects in all had been taken.
In Saqqara, site of the oldest pyramid in Egypt and a number of important tombs, padlocks on the tombs were broken but nothing was taken, Mr. Hawass said. He said that other sites, including the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens, the pyramids of Giza, and all of Egypt’s other museums were safe, and credited not only the army but also average Egyptians, who he said had helped guards protect cultural sites.
“They stood with sticks” along with guards and antiquities inspectors, he said. “They stood in front of outlaws, and they stopped any theft.”
As Egypt’s chief archaeologist, Mr. Hawass has made the return of Egypt’s cultural patrimony his priority. He has called on Germany, for instance, to return the bust of Nefertiti that is in the Neues Museum in Berlin, and on Britain to return the Rosetta Stone.
Mr. Hawass, whose previous title was chairman of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, under the umbrella of the Ministry of Culture, was promoted on Monday to a position in the cabinet of President Hosni Mubarak as minister of antiquities. He said that the government had responded to protesters’ demands and that now people should be patient.
“They should give us the opportunity to change things, and if nothing happens they can march again,” he said. “But you can’t bring in a new president now, in this time. We need Mubarak to stay and make the transition.”
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These are outrageous, self-justifying assertions, especially in light of the Mubarak government’s brutal action in Tianamen-Tahrir Square. It makes one wonders if the reassuring noises coming from Hawass’s fan website are equally cynical disinformation…
For all the outcry and self-righteousness over the vandalism in the Egyptian Museum and its antiquities, there is another part of the cultural identity of its people that is no less significant– and far more entwined in the daily lives or memories of its many peoples and communities.
In 2008, the vanishing art, musical instruments, and storytellers if the al-Sirah al-Hilaliyyah Epic was inscribed on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity and its careful documentation provided a way to conserve an element of culture that– unlike the distant golden excesses of the megalomaniac pharaohs– represented a form of cultural creativity no less endangered than buried temples and tombs.
I would direct you to CULNAT, the newer Egyptian organization for inventorying the full range of Egypt’s tangible and intangible heritage– from prehistory to the present, but its webpage about folklore (http://www.cultnat.org/Programs/folklore/About/Pages/About.aspx) has gone silent, a victim of the Mubarak government’s effort to “protect” the nation from thugs and troublemakers. Maybe you will read this and be able to click on it after he is gone.
And there are countless other expressions of Egyptian culture that are no less fragile than the carved figures and jewelry in the Cairo Museum– like his one, from the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage site:
Enhancing Women’s Role as Custodians and Artisans of Egyptian Handicrafts — For over centuries, women have used their innovative and artistic talents to create artefacts passing them from mother to daughter. The “Tally” embroidery, famous in Upper Egypt, and the cross-stitches embroidery of both Siwa and Sinai are unique forms of art dating back to the 19th century. This heritage is under threat because of the permeation of advanced and easier technologies, and a lack of market awareness.
In response to the threat of industrial standardization, the Egyptian National Council for Women (NCW) has taken initiatives with UNESCO to safeguard Egyptian intangible heritage manifested in the domains of traditional craftsmanship, oral traditions and expressions, proverbs and performing arts. This project included documentation in combination with the collection of all forms and patterns of the Tally. It also aimed at training young women artists, craftsmen, documentalists and teachers in recording and documenting the work and in accessing and retrieving historical artistic records. Furthermore, small-scale enterprises were developed to create gainful employment to women living in underserved regions and villages.
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There are different ways to preserve a country’s memory and creativity than selecting a certain Golden Age and using it as the metaphor and embodiment of an essentialized civilization and authoritarian regime. Certainly the material remains of Ancient Egypt are fascinating and valuable. But they, like the fabulously wealthy and well-connected families of the Cairo elite are not the only ones who deserve dignity, respect, and cries of outrage from the academy and from museum professionals when they are damaged or destroyed.
From the Washington Post 1 February 2011
by Jamal Halaby
AMMAN, Jordan — Jordan’s King Abdullah II fired his government Tuesday in the wake of street protests and asked an ex-prime minister to form a new Cabinet, ordering him to launch immediate political reforms.
The dismissal follows several large protests across Jordan- inspired by similar demonstrations in Tunisia and Egypt – calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Samir Rifai, who is blamed for a rise in fuel and food prices and slowed political reforms.
A Royal Palace statement said Abdullah accepted Rifai’s resignation tendered earlier Tuesday.
The king named Marouf al-Bakhit as his prime minister-designate, instructing him to “undertake quick and tangible steps for real political reforms, which reflect our vision for comprehensive modernization and development in Jordan,” the palace statement said.
The king also stressed that economic reform was a “necessity to provide a better life for our people, but we won’t be able to attain that without real political reforms, which must increase popular participation in the decision-making.”
He asked al-Bakhit for a “comprehensive assessment … to correct the mistakes of the past.” He did not elaborate. The statement said Abdullah also demanded an “immediate revision” of laws governing politics and public freedoms.
For full story, click here.
Alex Joffe once again challenges the conventional wisdom with his usual mix of sarcasm and perceptiveness. With events so fluid in Egypt, it is hard to know where the modern world–much less the ancient world is going– but it IS clear that the particular way that the Egyptian uprising resolves itself will be crucial for determining global attitudes about many, many things.
One thing, though, is for certain. We need to stop looking at the phenomenon of looting and indeed the iconic-economic value of antiquities– in Egypt, Iraq, and everywhere else– as something aesthetically self-contained and morally impermeable. Antiquities, like all commodities, both symbolize and are entangled in the justices, injustices, tyranny, propaganda, silencing, identity, homogenization, and political economy of wider society.
From the Wall Street Journal 1 Feb 2011
By ALEX JOFFE
When Zahi Hawass, the secretary general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, came to work at the Egyptian Museum on Saturday, he found that looters had broken in and beheaded two mummies—possibly Tutankhamun’s grandparents—and looted the ticket booth. Reports indicate that middle-class Egyptians, the tourism police and later the military secured the museum. But now it appears that many other museum’s and storehouses have been looted, along with archaeological sites. A vast, impoverished underclass seems less taken with either the nationalist narrative of Egyptian greatness that stretches back to the pharaohs, or the intrinsic value of antiquities for all humanity, and more intrigued by the possibility of gold and other loot. For his part, Mr. Hawass has now been appointed state minister for antiquities by President Hosni Mubarak.
These events make Mr. Hawass’s quest to return all Egyptian objects to Egypt misguided or at least poorly timed. Last week he again demanded the return of the bust of Nefertiti from Berlin. The Rosetta Stone in the British Museum has long been on Mr. Hawass’s wish list, along with the Zodiac Ceiling in the Louvre and statues in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts and museums in Hildesheim, Germany, and Turin, Italy. And a few weeks back he complained bitterly that the obelisk known as Cleopatra’s Needle, a gift to the U.S. from the Khedive of Egypt that has graced Central Park since 1881, was in poor condition and might have to be reclaimed. He has made similar demands for the repatriation of Egyptian artifacts around the world, whether purchased, donated or stolen. But can Egypt even look after what it has? This question is now out in the open.
One problem lies in the relationship between the past and present in Egypt and other authoritarian states, where antiquities and sites are used as a means of glorifying and justifying modern repressive regimes. In Iraq in 2003, during the U.S. invasion, the Baghdad Museum was looted by local residents, insiders and possibly professional thieves. The Americans took the blame. But it was Iraqis who did the looting, after Saddam Hussein’s soldiers had fired at U.S. forces from in and around the museum. They did not share the regime’s regard for the Mesopotamian past and correctly associated Saddam with both unspeakable repression and—as he intended—patronage of museums and archaeology. The small Iraqi middle and upper classes may have understood the importance of museums and heritage for the collective identity and memory of all Iraqis, but they were overwhelmed by the poor and the angry. The Baghdad Museum has yet to reopen, stolen artifacts are still being recovered from around the world, and Iraq’s archaeological sites are still being looted…
For his full article and conclusions, click here.
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Note the useful observation of Professor Larry Rothfield in the comments section.