The National Geographic Society Museum
by Heba Fatteen Bizzari
The National Geographic Society Museum, located in the El Shura Council Compound in Kasr El Aini Street in Cairo, seems to be a hidden museum as many people are unaware of its existence.
Trying to find it was a tough job. Immediately upon entering the compound I found a sign on one of the two buildings indicating it to be the National Geographic Society. I entered the museum and began to discover the different chambers. The museum consists of five main halls. These are labeled as Cairo Hall, Africa Hall, Suez Canal Hall, Egyptian Ethnography and a general Hall about Egypt.
The society was founded by Khedive Ismail on the 19th of May 1875 as an independent organization and, to insure its independence, he dedicated 600 fedan (acre) to act as revenue for the society, said Ahmed Makkawy the museum manager. The Society was founded by and for European explorers and missionaries of the 19th century, added Makkawy.
Initially, the initially acted as a staging post by European explorers who came in search of the sources of the Nile, and later by the many geographers whose research it financed during the interwar years. It is perhaps best known for its library, a cartographic collection and a series of relief maps of Egypt.
However, the museum contains a wealth of artifacts from the 19th century, many of which are still in use today. These are artifacts of daily life in Egypt. For example the Cairo hall contains children's toys, women's jewelry and clothes. There is even soldier's clothing of different ranks, Added Makkawy.
The artifacts in the museum highlight an early stage of development for some technologies that would latter become mainstream, such as the peep shows which can be considered the first form of cinema or moving pictures in Egypt
There is also a big hall that is used to conduct the society meetings. The hall itself is actually a work of art that dates back to 1925. The hall is large enough to hold 500 people. According to Mr. Makkawy The 12th international conference for geography was held in this hall with King Fouad as its president.
The museum contains a library which has a variety of books that are very helpful for any researcher in the geography field. It contains journals from other geographical societies gathered from all around the world. The Egyptian society is keen on the exchange of all its publications with other societies, added Makkawy.
I was told that some of the books contains important geographic descriptions of early travels and explorations in Egypt and Africa. Some date to the time when explorers were attempting to discovering the source of the Nile River.
The presentation of the museum is somewhat uninformative and unappealing. The way that the items are labeled and grouped, in addition to the showcases and the lighting, prevents the museum from being beneficial to average visitors. However a careful examination of the museum reveals a wealth of information on the life style of people in 19th century Egypt and Africa. There is excellent information on the habits and customs of Egyptians with special emphasis on geographical distribution. Different cultural customs are portrayed such as those for wedding ceremonies. Other topics include public baths, circumcision, smoking habits, women's ornaments, musical instruments and toys. There are also period paintings, statues and other artifacts.
Cairo's museums are numerous, and many are specialized such as this one. While it may not be of interest to all tourists, those with a little time on their hands who seek both a unique experience and a view into Egypt's not so distant cultural past will probably find a visit to the National Geographic Museum very rewarding.