The American Research Center in Eygpt

Revolution at the Egyptian Museum: Collections Management in the 21st Century

Revolution at the Egyptian Museum: Collections Management in the 21st Century

This article was published in the December 2011/January 2012 issue of Ancient Egypt magazine, the sixth article in a series about the American Research Center in Egypt's conservation and training work in Egypt.

On January 28th, 2011, amid the chaos of the recent Egyptian revolution, the Egyptian Museum in Cairo was broken into for the first time in its history.  More than a dozen vitrines were broken and objects were scattered throughout the museum.  Under these circumstances, the Egyptian army immediately took control of this national treasure, with the first priority of securing the museum from further break-ins and losses. 

Hanane Dalia Inventory Small

Hanane Gaber and Dalia Galal working on inventory

The museum staff was allowed in to begin assessing the damage and the task of inventorying the broken vitrines on February 6th.  This was by no means an easy task.  Only a limited number of staff members were permitted into the museum at all, and for the first few days, only one registrar was allowed in at a time. 

Since the situation in Tahrir Square, right outside of the museum, remained uncertain, the staff had to carry out their inventory in groups, guarded at all times by army commandos.  Moving in groups was necessary to ensure everyone’s safety, but made the work very difficult and slow.  Every gallery in the museum had to be searched carefully, and the garden and even the roof  - a probable point of access for the looters - had to be checked as well.  The vandals had tossed things everywhere, and museum objects were found in the most unlikely places, even discarded in rubbish bins.

As bad as this was for one of the world’s most iconic Egyptology collections – and one of the world’s great treasure houses of cultural heritage – it could have been worse.  The fact that many object records had been digitized and registrars were on staff and able to participate in the inventory process is important to note here.  A very few years ago, there was no collections management department at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

CREATING A REGISTRATION DEPARTMENT FOR THE EGYPTIAN MUSEUM IN CAIRO

The Egyptian Museum Registrar Training
9 RCMDD Staff 2011

The Collections Management team: Back row (l-r): Hanane Gaber, Sari Nieninen (ARCE staff), Yasmin El Shazly, Elina Nuutinen (ARCE staff), Marwa Abdel Razek. Front row (l-r): Dalia Galal, Angy Abdel Aziz, Ghada Tarek, Doha Fathy, Eman Mohamed

Project was the brainchild of ARCE Director, Dr. Gerry Scott, as a result of ARCE’s experiences in organizing the special exhibition in 2005 at the Egyptian Museum,  American Contributions to Egyptian Archaeology.  The exhibition, featuring 50 signature objects or object groups, examined the many contributions of American archaeologists over the past century to our understanding of ancient Egypt.  Especially featured were the remarkable excavations of George A. Reisner (of the University of California, Berkeley and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), the many discoveries of numerous expeditions under the auspices of the University Museum of the University of Pennsylvania, the work the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, and the landmark excavations of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, among others.  The experience of planning, trying to locate objects,  and installing the exhibition was a complicated and, at times, overwhelming task and brought home to its organizers the pressing need for a modern, centralized collections management system for the Egyptian Museum.

The resulting project to hire and train registrars to keep track of and care for the Museum’s vast collection was launched in January 2007, with funding from ARCE’s Egyptian Antiquities Conservation Project (EAC) made possible through a grant from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

The goal of the Egyptian Museum Registrar Training Project was twofold – 1) to teach a select group of newly hired registrars the policies, practices and skills needed to manage the Museum’s collections including the day-to-day activities of acquisition, cataloging, tracking object movement and location, condition reporting, object handling, inventory, preventive care, loans, and appropriate documentation. And, 2) to develop and maintain a computerized collections management system in order to effectively track the Museum’s collection. Throughout this project, ARCE worked with Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities to create the first registration and collections management department in Egypt, and has trained a core group of nine Egyptian registrars.  Together, they form the Egyptian Museum’s new Registration, Collections Management, and Documentation Department (RCMDD), under the supervision of Dr. Yasmin El Shazly, Head of Documentation and Dr. Hanane Gaber, Head Registrar.

THE EGYPTIAN MUSEUM DATABASE

Of course, in order for the new registrars to be effective, the collection records must be up to date and accessible to them.  This leads to the other very important aspect of this collections management project.

The Egyptian Museum Database Project actually predated the ARCE Museum Registration Department Project, and was subsumed into it.  The database project began in 2005 as a volunteer effort, with the endorsement of then Secretary General of the SCA Dr. Zahi Hawass and then Director of the Egyptian Museum Dr. Wafaa El Saddik.  In its first iteration, Dr. Janice Kamrin, using Filemaker Pro as her vehicle, built the first project database to replace an out-of-date and unusable database at the museum.  From its inception, this new database was designed to record both basic object information and collections management data, such as object location and object movement.  At first, data was entered by a small team of volunteers, composed for the most part of Egyptology students from the American University of Cairo studying with Dr. Salima Ikram.  Since the database team, at that time, had no access to the museum’s register books, the volunteers could only enter information from the museum’s published catalogues.

DIGITIZING OBJECT RECORDS

A major step forward for the database initiative came in August 2005, with funding for the first of two digitization projects supported by ARCE’s Antiquities Endowment Fund (AEF).  This ARCE endowment fund, established with a grant from USAID, is meant to provide funding for small-scale conservation related projects dealing with Egyptian antiquities in the areas of physical conservation, documentation, training, and publication subsidies.  Awards are made on an annual basis and the application process is intentionally uncomplicated.  To date, some seventy projects have been awarded supporting grants.  (For more information on the AEF, go to www.arce.org/grants/adf)

The Egyptian Museum has three sets of handwritten register books, and one published catalogue series; these record the four main parallel, and often overlapping, numbering systems in use at the Museum.  Many of the registers, some of which have been in continuous use for over a century, were in a dire state of condition, and all were continuing to deteriorate. For instance, the books that make up the Journals d’entrées are unique and irreplaceable. They are handwritten, and there is only one original of each. Through this project, Journals d’entrées and Temporary Registers were color photographed digitally and new copies printed from the digital files, so that the fragile originals could be conserved and archived.

7 Conservator2

Book conservator Marie Trottier works with photographer Gustavo Camps to digitize the fragile register books.

As the digitization project progressed, additional museum records became available to the documentation team, which was now under the auspices of both ARCE and the SCA.  The original team of AUC students also began to grow, with the addition of a steady stream of foreign volunteers who covered their own expenses while they spent between three weeks and one-year entering information into the new database.

The digitizing project continued with focus on the museum’s 98 Special Registers, created in the 1950s when the objects then in the museum’s galleries were divided into seven sections according to their dating and location within the museum.  This project, in which the resulting facsimiles were linked to their relevant object records in the new database, was completed in December 2008.  By also including the conservation of the original books themselves, the project served to capture preserve and make available the irreplaceable information contained in these various manuscript sources.

Since 2005, the team has also digitized 97 of the 109 Catalogues general, which groups and numbers objects according to category (e.g. statuary, obelisks, canopic jars, etc.) or assemblages.  Of these 109 volumes, 97 are printed, and 12 are manuscripts.  The team continues to work to complete the digitization of all Catalogues general.

MAKING OBJECT RECORDS AVAILABLE TO RESEARCHERS AND THE GENERAL PUBLIC

The wealth of material housed in the venerable Egyptian Museum has always tantalized  the public and, in particuar, scholars in search of information. But, obtaining  that information has often been very difficult, if not impossible. In 2006, ARCE received the first of two grants from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, a U.S.-based charitable organization that supports scholarly endeavors, to institutionalize the database project.  With this support, ARCE selected EMuseum (EMU), a collections management system created by KE Software, into which the original Filemaker system could be migrated.  The project has been extremely successful: as of the end of 2010, over 160,000 object records had been added to the new database. 

As selected objects are fully checked and approved, some of their database information will be available to the public on line through the Museum’s new website, launched earlier this year (http://egyptianmuseumcairo.org/).  The database populates a new intranet site as well, through which the majority of database fields, as well as object images and register facsimiles, are available to all Egyptian Museum and SCA staff, as well as to scholars and students visiting the museum.

As mentioned, it has not always been easy for scholars and researchers to gain information about objects in the Egyptian Museum's vast collection, especially if the object was unpublished, or if the researcher was uncertain as to which museum department had charge of the particular records for the object in question.  With the creation of the Egyptian Museum's new Registration Department and Collection
Database, outside scholars and researchers can now turn to the museum's registrars for research assistance, and this now-routine process marks a vast improvement for everyone.

ARCE is proud of the work done and the dedicated efforts of the Egyptian Museum’s new Registration, Collections Management, and Documentation Department (RCMDD) and wish only for the best as Egypt and its beloved Egyptian Museum head into a new and hopeful future.

Dr. Janice Kamrin directed both the Registrar Training Project and the Museum Database Project through October 31, 2010, when Ms. Elina Nuutinen took on the oversight of the Registrar Training Project and Ms. Sari Nieminen became responsible for the Database Project.  Throughout the project, Ms. Rachel Mauldin, ARCE’s Assistant Director of U.S. Operations served as a project consultant.

The conservation work of the American Research Center in Egypt (ARCE) is supported by grants from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). ARCE has been engaged in training and conservation work in Egypt since 1996.

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