Saturday 15 September 2012

Egypt Court: US Exhibition Illegal

In Egypt, the State Council Administrative Court on Saturday has ordered the government to take the necessary procedures to recover  from the United States 179 artifacts that have been sent abroad for an exhibition about Queen Cleopatra.
The artifacts had been sent to be displayed at a number of private exhibitions between 1 April 2010 and 3 July 2013. Former Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif had issued a decree to display the artifacts in the United States, based on an individual agreement signed by Zahi Hawass, the former head of the Supreme Council of Antiquities; the National Geographic Society [...] and two other American associations. The court ruled that the agreement is a violation of Article 10 of the Antiquities Protection Act, which prohibits contracts with private foreign societies to display antiquities outside Egypt. The case documents show that the Supreme Council of Antiquities signed a contract with the Ohio International Arts and Exhibitions Foundation, the National Geographic Society in Washington and the Exhibition foundation in Los Angeles to display a number of Egyptian artifacts in five US cities in return for an amount of US$ 1.250 million. The documents, the court says, do not show the approval of the president for the agreement. In addition, the bodies that had been contracted are private institutions and are not considered museums or scientific institutes as defined by the Antiquities Protection Act. The court noted, therefore, that the conditions for the display of Egyptian antiquities abroad have not been met, and thus sending the antiquities abroad was illegal.
This case is one of the bases for the accusations of "corruption" that have been levelled against Zahi Hawass. Cleopatra, the Exhibition is billed in the publicity material as a "dramatically staged 13,000-square-foot exhibit [which] features the largest collection of Cleopatra-era artifacts from Egypt ever assembled in the US". It is currently on show at the at the California Science Center Los Angeles (May 23 - December 31, 2012). This display has been organized by the National Geographic Society and 'Arts and Exhibitions International' (Aurora, Ohio - a division of AEG Live), "with cooperation from the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities and the European Institute for Underwater Archaeology (IEASM)", but not, it now seems the current Egyptian government.
Visitors to the exhibition follow the modern-day parallel stories of two ongoing expeditions being led in Egypt. The galleries display items recovered in these explorations by Franck Goddio, French underwater archaeologist and director of IEASM, and by Zahi Hawass, former Minister of State for Antiquities of Egypt, with Kathleen Martinez, who is searching for Cleopatra's tomb in the desert at Taposiris Magna.
The exhibition showcases artifacts from Franck Goddio's continuing underwater search off the Mediterranean coast of Egypt, where he has recovered items that were part of Cleopatra's world, as well as that of her dynasty. His search, sponsored by the Hilti Foundation, began in 1992. Goddio's remarkable finds bring visitors inside his search for the lost world of Cleopatra, including remnants from the grand palace where she ruled and the sunken ancient cities of Canopus and Heracleion, two bustling centers of commerce and culture in her era, where she would have spent time for both religious and pleasure-seeking pursuits.
The travelling exhibition had already been shown in the United States in Philadelphia and Cincinnati, when it was seen by more than a half a million visitors. It then went to the Milwaukee Public Museum in October 2011. Here's a promotional video:

Back in Egypt though, "The court described the incident as a serious matter calling for immediate remedy, because the damage or loss of such artifacts would be irreparable". Who told the court that the Americans curating these 160 objects were "damaging" them or refusing to return them when the exhibition was over? The Egyptians have not exactly been conspicuous for the effectiveness of their own protection of the antiquities which remained in Egypt since Feb 28th 2011 have they? This is a ridiculous accusation.

Now, I have few doubts that the Egyptian antiquities legislation lays down the procedure and conditions for foreign exhibitions which the court says it does. It seems incontestable that if the court says there were some kind of procedural irregularities, that there probably were, but then the US exhibitors also presumably have lawyers on their staff, where were they when the loan agreements were discussed and  finalised? So we cannot blame the court for reaching the decision it did, and issuing the judgement which it did. But I think we really all need to know the names of those who brought this case before the State Council Administrative Court. Would they like to make themselves public, and explain why they chose this route and no other - and what their aim was?

This looks like a simple act of political revenge. If procedural mistakes were made, they are the ultimate responsibility of the Ministers responsible, Farouk Hosni and Zahi Hawass. It cannot escape notice that the Prime Minister of the time, mentioned in the report, Ahmed Nazif has been accused of 'corruption' (and under the new regime has just been jailed for it). The exhibition has been in the US for over a year now, I have yet to hear that any of the artefacts in it have been lost, stolen or damaged. It has probably generated an immeasurable amount of interest in (visiting) Egypt and international goodwill. Yet somebody wanted to give Zahi Hawass a kick by bringing the case - any case - before the court. By rendering the exhibition "illegal" the court has in one fell blow put the organizers (the ones in the US not just those who worked hard to put it together in Egypt) in a highly embarrassing position, and one which potentially could now involve them in financial loss. What kind of message does this send out? I certainly think international exhibition organizers are going to think twice about involving any Egyptian collaboration in the future. Our museums have, as we all know, all sorts of Egyptian antiquities (the Egyptians want them to give all those back too) and probably a decent exhibition about, say, Ptolemaic Egypt could be put together bypassing the Egyptians by inter-museum loans. I think we will find that the factional in-fighting that is going on within the heritage professions in Egypt is cutting off the nose to spite the face. Real damage is being done to antiquities all over Egypt as I write, there are huge problems (like the lack of any proper inventories where there should be proper inventories), and the biggest fuss is about checking whose signature was and was not on some document about a successful and probably otherwise well-organized exhibition which was doing much to save the face of Egyptian heritage. I think some of our colleagues over there need to get their priorities right.

'Administrative court orders recovery of 179 artifacts from US', Al-Masry Al-Youm Sat, 08/09/2012

Vignette: New Age meets Cat-woman and Stargate, promotional poster for US exhibition on Egyptian archaeology and culture.  

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