Egypt's Museums Bursting at the Seams
Private Investors May Be Able to Help
by Amargi Hillier
(Cairo) In many ways, running a museum is like managing any other service industry. You need a suitable building or space, either purpose-built or adapted to your needs. You need qualified staff at all levels, including specialists, managers, and ordinary workers As in any service industry, the institution's public image is vital, and almost any museum has to be actively promoted. Then you have got to consider security parking facilities, insurance, wheelchair access and a host of other issues.
The country's museum authorities themselves agree that they are incapable of handling the heavy load that falls to them. "The government is not efficient in management," says Minister of Culture, Farouk Hosni. "I believe strongly in privatization, and I specifically believe in this in the field of museology."
In areas like electricity and ports, the state has contracted some of its work to private companies, but museums remain almost exclusively public-sector domain. The country's heritage - particularly physical remnants of the past - is one of its prime national assets, economically as well as sentimentally. To add to the pressure, the number of ancient and medieval artifacts in storage increases by the week, a trend that's bound to continue as long as population growth pushes ahead construction - which will amount to more and more archaeological finds.
The antiquities museums can't even adequately look after the pieces they already have, let alone keep up with new finds. "We have ambitious plans, but we also have limited resources," says Gaballah Ali Gaballah, Head of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA). The ministry's budget this year allocates nearly LE 5OO million for antiquities. But that money must cover archaeological excavations, surveying and other activities, leaving considerably less for the management and upgrading of museums. Getting the private sector to direct some of its resources towards the construction and management of antiquities museums, says Gaballah, "isn't a matter of efficiency. It's an absolute necessity. We have hundreds of thousands of [artifacts] in storerooms, both in the museums and at archaeological sites. It's about time these pieces see the light."
During the past few months, there has been discussion within the culture ministry about turning to private capital, as the government has been doing in other areas where it feels unable to do a job well. "Privatization is the state strategy," says Gaballah. "There is talk about privatizing the telephone system and the water system so why not privatize us?" But selling off state assets remains a sensitive subject in Egypt, especially when the assets involved are regarded as part of a national entitlement or trust. Few assets could be more sensitive than ancient artifacts, which almost indisputably belong to the nation as a whole, and which Egypt reserves the permanent right to reclaim from foreign countries. However, no one is even contemplating privatizing the artifacts themselves. "The pieces will be forever the property of the nation," says Hosni. "But the building that houses them could be the property of the private sector."
While antiquities make up a major part of Egypt's museum industry, they are certainly not its only focus. The Ministry of Culture has a very wide portfolio, and delegates its responsibilities to several councils with considerable power in their own right - the SCA, the National Council for the Plastic Arts, the Supreme Council of Culture, and others.
"Privatization would not apply only to archaeology museums, but also to artistic ones," says Hosni. "Imagine, for example, that the Mohammed Mahmoud Khalil Museum had been put in the hands of the private sector. It would be totally different." But this museum-home to an impressive collection of 19th-century French impressionist art bequeathed to the state by a private donor-is undoubtedly one of the country's best. The paintings and sculptures are presented in a spacious and attractive though not overwhelming setting, with good lighting and constant temperature control. "Sure," says Hosni, the Mohammed Mahmoud Khalil is a good state museum. "However, it could be better if it were run privately." It would also attract more people. "It would be better from a promotional point of view," adds a ministry official. A private company would have been able to publish a catalogue - something that is sadly unavailable now - and put out educational tools like CD ROMs, he adds.
But while the culture ministry and the antiquities authority may be sympathetic to the idea of private input, no concrete steps have yet been taken. "The only progress so far has been backwards progress," says Hosni. "Unfortunately, I haven't seen any comprehensive initiative from the private sector. I need serious proposals before I can take the idea to the Cabinet of Ministers and defend it there. There was one idea proposed by [resort developer] El Gouna, but it was not a mature scheme. And there was another idea for a museum [in the luxury suburb of Al Aziziya] - the man was even willing to give the building freely to the government." Neither of these schemes - aimed more at creating "tourist villages" than serious museums - met with the minister's approval. Hosni stresses that the first proposals he takes to the cabinet must be totally credible, "in order to avoid any doubts or suspicion about such projects, which are out of the ordinary." But caution doesn't mean the minister isn't fully in favor of private museums in principle. "I am ready to receive any initiative to build museums from anywhere in the private sector," he says. "I am ready to have museums set up according to private initiatives, in Luxor, Aswan, Cairo, Alexandria - museums as such, not exhibits within a [tourist] village or some - thing like that."
According to Gaballah, it would be preferable - if more resources were available in the first place - for the government to make the first move, rather than waiting to receive proposals. "There is no plan for privatization," he points out. "There's a difference between hopes and a plan. But personally, I am hoping that one day the private sector will find a formula through which it can help us in building and managing museums." To Gaballah, the most exciting recent archaeological finds in Egypt have been the underwater discoveries made in the harbor of Alexandria in the past two years. Investments of private money into exhibitions of some of these artifacts would be "a dream," he says. "But we are not nearly at that stage yet. The excavation will take some time."
Though the culture ministry wants proposals to be for "serious" museums, the minister is also hoping for fresh ideas. "I am asking people to come up with something new," Hosni says. "What is new is specialized museums. So I encourage people from the private sector to present their projects in the form of categorical proposals, specifically for museums specialized in certain themes. For example, there could be a museum of Pharaonic women, a museum of Pharaonic handicrafts and craftsmanship - these sorts of specialized museums will surely attract visitors, and they would be different from the public museums."
In practice, the key to private management of museums containing national treasures would be a profit-sharing agreement between the state and the private investor. "The antiquities authority, for example, can offer the pieces to be displayed, and then the private sector can hire the most efficient personnel and curators to manage the museum," says Hosni. "We give them the pieces, they spend the money for the hiring of efficient people." Investors would be free, he adds, to hire foreigners as well as Egyptians to manage their projects.
The SCA would have to ensure that artifacts were handled appropriately. "Actual supervision would be our role," says Gaballah. "These are our monuments." Private companies with contracts to manage museums would be fully accountable to the government. "Let me make an analogy," says the antiquities chairman. "Private schools are supervised by the Ministry of Education, which sets a basic curriculum. The specifics - building design, lighting, and so on - are left to the private management, as long as they meet basic requirements."
The potential benefits from the Ministry of Culture's point of view are clear. "The government will receive its share of profit, and will not have to bear the expenses of building museums everywhere," says Hosni. Moreover, the government's take from private museums could be directed towards public museums, which would ensure "accessibility for the people."
Obviously, there's got to be something in it for the investor, too. "Of course," says the minister. "That's fundamental. This isn't sponsorship we're talking about. It's a business. We realize that the private sector has its own way of doing things. It needs to make money, and
will operate in a different way from [public] service-type management. And for private sector museums, that's fine with us."
The private museums could, however, charge considerably lower admission fees to citizens and residents than to foreign tourists, as is the case currently at public museums. "The details would have to worked out in the initial agreement [with the private investor]," says Hosni. "But this is certainly what we would aim for."
One thing that Hosni most definitely does not have in mind is letting the country's big flagship antiquities museums - such as the Egyptian Museum, the Islamic Museum and the Coptic Museum in Cairo, and the Greco- Roman Museum in AIexandria - fall into private hands. During the next few years, much of the collection of the Islamic Museum is to be moved to a site within the Cairo Citadel, while several other public museums are to undergo costly renovations, apparently at public expense. "I'm not asking businessmen to become directly involved in upgrading public museums," says Hosni. "But they could act as sponsors for upgrading efforts. There is no problem with that sponsorship can be accepted."
Caution with the major public collections should somewhat assuage fears of the part of privatization- phobias. Considering the history of antiquities theft in the last two centuries, any fears about leaving the nation's heritage in the hands of mad capitalists and foreigners cannot be dismissed lightly. Yet as long as the state insists on managing the big public museums the same old way, it's hard to see how that the private sector can accomplish any more than a slight easing of chronic pressure. All in all, the idea has wonderful advantages for the public and bringing Egypt's ancient glory to full light.