Japan is set to fall under the spell of ancient Egypt through an upcoming exhibition. But some archaeologists have criticised plans to send priceless objects abroad, writes Nevine El-Aref
Visitors to the Japanese capital will soon fall under the spell of ancient Egypt and the boy king Tutankhamun thanks to an exhibition, “Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs”, which opens in Tokyo this September.
Tutankhamun was seen for the first time in Japan in 1965 when objects from the Egyptian Museum’s priceless collection were exhibited in Tokyo. The second time was in 2012 when the magic of the boy king and his royal grandparents captured the heart of Osaka residents on the last leg of a ten-city tour that began in Switzerland and passed through Germany, France, England and several US states.
The new exhibition highlights one of the most interesting eras in ancient Egyptian history, the period before and during Tutankhamun’s reign 3,300 years ago. Each artefact in the show displays the dazzling craftsmanship that characterised earlier Tutankhamun exhibitions.
Of the 124 artefacts carefully selected from the Egyptian Museum, 30 are from the museum’s Tutankhamun collection. Artefacts from earlier royal tombs from the 18th Dynasty, including the tomb of Tutankhamun’s great-grandparents Yuya and Tuya and the KV55 burial tomb, are also included.
According to the terms of the exhibition agreement, revenues from the show could reach $10 million, said Ahmed Sharaf, head of the museums section at the Ministry of Antiquities in Cairo. A fixed amount of $2 added to the price of each ticket will be given to Egypt, as will a percentage of the merchandise sold through the show.
The exhibition, accompanied by an Egyptian curator and restorer, will travel for one year within Japan, beginning in Tokyo and Niigata and including institutions in other cities.
While all the necessary security procedures have been followed for the exhibition, some archaeologists have criticised the Ministry of Antiquities’ policy of sending exhibitions abroad. They say that the policy of sending artefacts outside the country uses Egypt’s heritage to make money and denies people the opportunity of seeing the objects at the Egyptian Museum.
Abdel-Halim Noureddin, head of the Egypt Archaeologists Union, said that the revenues raised were not sufficient. “The money it will raise is equal to the revenue of only one day from the Suez Canal,” he said.
Noureddin said that the ministry did not follow regulations set by parliament when it decided to send the present exhibition abroad.
He said that it contains objects that the regulations expressly forbid from being sent outside Egypt.
Other archaeologists have accused the ministry of breaking an administrative court ruling of July 2013 that ordered the immediate return of the Cleopatra exhibition that had toured four US states, a decision that led to the loss of millions of dollars. The country had earned $450,000 from each city the exhibit travelled to, plus a further $1 million for each 100,000 visitors and a 10 per cent cut of merchandising sales.
“The ministry has resumed sending exhibitions abroad in an attempt to raise money towards the completion of suspended antiquities projects, whether restoration work or the construction of new museums,” Minister of Antiquities Mamdouh Eldamaty told the Weekly.
He said that the decline in tourism after the 2011 revolution had depleted ministry funds, the budget of which is self-financed.
Previous ministers borrowed from the Finance Ministry to pay the salaries of ministry employees, leaving the ministry with debts it must repay, he added.
“Resuming the policy of sending antiquities exhibitions abroad is our only way to raise money towards preserving Egypt’s antiquities, to provide the required budget to complete postponed antiquities projects, and above all to attract more tourists to the country, which will revive tourism in Egypt,” Eldamaty said.
He argued that the criticisms of ministry policy were unfounded. A previous exhibition in Osaka had returned to Egypt at its scheduled time, he said, and Japan was enthusiastic about hosting more ancient Egyptian exhibitions. After three meetings of the ministry council, the request for the new exhibition was approved, he said, on the proviso that the number of objects from the Tutankhamun collection would be reduced and some would be replaced by objects from the 18th Dynasty.
Eldamaty said that a wheel included in the exhibition was not part of the Tutankhamun collection but came from the same New Kingdom period. He said that the ministry, in seeking to send the exhibition abroad, had not broken the administrative court ruling. The ruling only affected the Cleopatra exhibition, which has now returned to Egypt, he added.
“Sending exhibitions abroad is a well-known activity of any culture,” Eldamaty said, adding that many foreign museum directors regularly sent collections abroad, particularly when local institutions are closed for restoration. This had happened during restoration work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Turin Museum in Italy, he said.
He noted that the Graeco-Roman Museum in Alexandria and the Museum of Islamic Art in Cairo are currently closed and their collections are in storage. It might have made more sense to send objects from these museums on tour instead, he added.
“Exhibitions abroad are also a means to protect and preserve Egypt’s treasured collections,” Eldamaty said, adding that when an artefact is selected for an exhibition abroad it is often carefully restored and documented. A special catalogue is also likely to be produced for the exhibition.
Eldamaty said that the number of visitors visiting Egypt also typically increases after an exhibition is held abroad.
Archaeologist Abdel-Rahim Rihan supported the ministry’s policy of exhibitions abroad, describing it as an important way to promote Egypt’s heritage and a good opportunity to exchange experiences between archaeologists and curators in different countries and areas of expertise.