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Pop-Up Museum in Cairo

A small team from the Fitzwilliam Egyptian coffins project recently travelled to Cairo (July 16-22, 2019) to pilot their successful ‘Pop-Up’ Egyptian Coffins Museum with colleagues at the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square. The team comprised Helen Strudwick, Melanie Pitkin, Charlotte Thompson-Mitchell and our local contact and Project Manager in Egypt, Sara Hany Abed.

This work followed on from our previous visits to Egypt generously supported by the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF), which focused on sharing our methodologies and findings from our research into the Fitzwilliam Museum’s Egyptian coffins collection in an interactive, hands-on manner (as described here and here). On this trip, we concentrated on trialling one proven successful outreach model to engage non-academic audiences in our academic Egyptian coffins research, namely the ‘Pop-Up’ Museum.

As you can read here, a ‘Pop-Up’ Museum involves real researchers (including Egyptologists and conservators) bringing real museum objects, craft replicas, hands-on activities and digital experiences into the heart of communities who might not otherwise have access to our research. We aim to do this, however, in surprising ways by popping-up in locations where people would not expect to have a cultural encounter. For example, in our 6-month project in Wisbech, UK, generously supported by the Arts and Humanities Impact Fund, we popped-up in a pub, supermarket, shopping centre, public thoroughfare and a food bank. While a ‘Pop-Up’ Museum can be about any subject, ours is focused on Egyptian coffins because this is a particular research strength for the Fitzwilliam Museum, and a current ongoing project. This aligns with the outstanding collection and research similarly underway into Egyptian coffins being carried out by our colleagues in Cairo.

We wanted to replicate the ‘Pop-Up’ Museum outreach model in Cairo to demonstrate to these colleagues the value and importance of taking research beyond the museum’s walls, particularly to reach new and diverse audiences firsthand. The benefits are also wide-reaching - not only in raising research awareness, but in helping to improve peoples’ happiness and well-being, and building bridges with people who might not otherwise think a museum is for them. It also brings benefit to the people delivering the ‘Pop-Up’ Museum, who receive feedback on their work, and also frequently insights from non-specialists that lead to new ways of thinking, for example about ancient Egyptian craftsmanship.

Our time in Cairo consisted of three parts: (1) A training session and live demonstration of the ‘Pop-Up’ Egyptian coffins project with curators, conservators and students at the Egyptian Museum Cairo (Thursday 18th July); (2) delivery of a ‘Pop-Up’ Museum in the Pinocchio furniture store in Maadi (Friday 19th July); and (3) a debrief and discussion over koshary of the impact our GCRF funded work has had, and is expected to have, on our Egyptian Museum colleagues’ work practices (Sunday 21st July). A summary of these events are as follows:

Thursday 18th July From 12noon-1pm in Gallery 39 at the Egyptian Museum Cairo, Melanie Pitkin, Sara Hany Abed and Charlotte Thompson-Mitchell delivered a bilingual English-Arabic lecture titled ‘The Pop-Up Egyptian Coffins Project. A method for engaging non-academic audiences in academic research’. The lecture was well-attended by 27 Egyptian Museum curators and conservators, as well as a group of conservation students from Cairo University currently training with the Egyptian Museum’s Head of Conservation, Dr Moamen Othmann.

Following the lecture, participants helped to set up the ‘Pop-Up’ near the Museum’s exit. Melanie, Charlotte and Sara demonstrated the different components and experiences of the ‘Pop-Up’ before our Egyptian colleagues took charge of delivering the content to museum visitors themselves. It was fabulous to see how enthusiastic all the participants were. In a space of 3 hours, we recorded 45 meaningful engagements with visitors (of 3 minutes or longer), and made impressions on a further 600 passers-by. While the Egyptian Museum has an active children’s education department, these are pre-booked and do not take place within the Museum itself. It is therefore uncommon for visitors to have direct face-to-face interaction with behind-the-scenes staff of the Museum.

Some particular highlights included a group of American tourists who said their encounter with the ‘Pop-Up’ Egyptian Coffins project “made their visit to the Museum”! They also asked to pose for photographs with the Egyptian coffins team. We also received two Chinese tourists with their Egyptian tour guide who methodically translated all of Sara’s explanations from Arabic into Mandarin. They spent at least 20 minutes engrossed by the content, especially the replica section of Nespawershefyt’s coffin lid, showing the different surface preparation and pigment layers making up its decoration. It was also very rewarding to observe the number of conversations happening in Arabic between our Egyptian colleagues and local Egyptian Museum visitors. The whole objective of the ‘Pop-Up’ training initiative is to equip our Egyptian colleagues with the knowledge, confidence and infrastructure to deliver these experiences on their own, with a particular focus on engaging local Egyptian communities in order to help them re-discover (or newly discover) their heritage and cultural identity.

Friday 19th July Coinciding with the final of the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations, we held our first offsite ‘Pop-Up’ Egyptian coffins experience at the Pinocchio furniture store in Maadi between 5pm-9pm on Friday 19th July. Pinocchio design and make handcrafted wooden ready-to-assemble furniture in Damietta (the centre of Egypt’s furniture industry). Through our local representative, Sara, we were very fortunate to be introduced to Pinocchio’s owners, Amr and Marwa, who kindly gave us permission, and invaluable support, to trial one of our ‘Pop-Ups’ in their store.

As opposed to the surprise nature of our ‘Pop-Ups’ in England where we do not advertise until the day of the event, the Pinocchio store in Maadi created a Facebook event and shared the news with their client database one week in advance. This meant we attracted quite a mixed audience, including those with a professional background and appreciation for woodworking and the handmade (including University Professors specialising in Furniture History and Design), and also celebrity customers, such as Egyptian novelist and critic, Salwa Bakr (pictured below).

The delivery of the Maadi ‘Pop-Up’ was a real collaborative effort between Cambridge and Cairo. We were joined by at least 15 curators, conservators and students who attended our training session the previous day. It was heartening to see how much energy everyone had from helping with the setup to engaging different visitors with all aspects of the ‘Pop-Up’ over a 4 hour period. Some recurrent feedback we heard from visitors included how much they appreciated the human interaction, which brought the content of the ‘Pop-Up’ to life - awakening new stories and ways of seeing that people had not thought about before. Others also commented on the value our ‘Pop-Up’ had in inspiring young Egyptians to know more about their ancient past, and the skills, time and handwork that went into producing their material culture.

At the end of the evening, we discussed the ‘Pop-Up’ with Amr and Marwa. They responded with warmth and enthusiasm for how the event had gone and suggested hosting the event at their premises on a regular basis (maybe as much as once per month), and also the possibility of holding a ‘Pop-Up’ at their headquarters in Damietta.

Sunday 21st July To conclude our time in Cairo, we invited all participants in the training session for lunch at our apartment in Downtown. Over koshary and rice pudding, we informally discussed how we might be able to make the ‘Pop-Up’ Museum a sustainable and independent project for our Egyptian Museum colleagues in the future. We established that this will involve some continued financial support from funding bodies in the UK, which the Fitzwilliam Museum team will manage. This will be needed to cover transport costs and accommodation if we are able to pursue the next ‘Pop-Up’ location in Damietta.

Finally, it was an invaluable opportunity to find out how our Egyptian colleagues’ understanding of coffins has changed since we commenced working with them earlier in the year. The general consensus was that people now “see them differently”. Previously, they had not thought very much about how coffins were made and decorated.

The Fitzwilliam-EMC coffins teams would like to extend a very warm thank you to Dr Sabah Abdel-Raziq, Director of the Egyptian Museum Cairo, Dr Moaman Othmann, Head of Conservation, Egyptian Museum Cairo and Amr and Marwa of Pinocchio Furniture for their incredibly kind support and assistance in making our ‘Pop-Up’ project in Cairo a possibility.

create Created: 24 Jul 2019 labelGCRF labelCairo labelEgyptian Museum labelPop-Up labelPop-Up Museum labelEgyptian coffins labeltraining labelprofessional development labelknowledge transfer labelcapacity building

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