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Pop-up museum back in action

Event Date: 26 Mar 2024

From November 2023 to January 2024, the Pop-Up Museum team from the Fitzwilliam Museum began to work in association with Wassla, an Egyptian initiative for heritage and culture. Together they planned a number of community outreach activities around Egypt, including talks and Pop-Up Museum activities.

A Pop-Up Museum is where real researchers (including Egyptologists and conservators) bring real museum objects, craft replicas,hands-on activities and digital experiences into the heart of communities. You can read more about the Pop-Up Museum here and here.

We started our outreach tour in Cairo where we held our Pop-Up at Egypt Designers School. It was attended by furniture designers, university professors, artists, students and also students from the Royal Danish Academy who were in Egypt for an ancient Egyptian inspired furniture design workshop, in collaboration with Designdustry and Pinocchio Carpentry Factory in Damietta, both of which we often collaborate with in our Pop-Up activities in Egypt.

After Cairo, we went to Damietta, a city famous as the hub of woodwork and furniture making since the late 19th century, where we did a Pop-Up for the second time with design students at the Pinocchio Carpentry Factory. Our first time there was in 2019 where all the factory workers were involved and exchanged making techniques between the past and the present with us. You can read more about our first Pop-Up in Damietta here. While we were in Damietta, it was fascinating to witness the development of the ancient Egyptian inspired designs of the Egyptian and Danish designers which coincidentally overlapped with our Pop-Ups and created a positive atmosphere, all inspired by ancient Egypt and triggering engaging conversations.

We also visited the local carpenters in Damietta as well as the boat makers at Ezbet El Borg, a nearby coastal city with a large fishing and boat making industry. We were interested to see the materials and wood, how that compares to the boat makers in Alexandria, and think about how it might relate to ancient Egyptian woodwork practices.

We then travelled to upper Egypt where we did Pop-Ups in both Esna and Luxor. In Esna, we organised it with Takween a company for integrated community development. The Pop-Up took place at the local historic market, just across from the ancient Egyptian temple of Esna. A diverse range of locals including shop keepers, workers, craftsmen, tour guides, school children, and locals who live close by, participated. People were so engaged that some of them went back home and brought their tools which they felt had a lot in common with the ancient Egyptian replica tools we had. They were also given the chance to try the ancient Egyptian tools such as the bow drill. School children were passing by on their way home so they curiously stopped and started making their own ancient Egyptian brushes and had a go at painting with it. After a couple of hours of very interesting sharing and exchange of ideas, it was very hard to wrap up as more and more people kept joining us. Some were even slowing down and stopping to ask questions while they were riding on their motorbikes! One of the memorable things was meeting children who have never been out of Esna, and hence have never been to a museum before since there is none there. We had a chat with them about the idea of a museum and showed them pictures about what it can look like. Thats how surprising Pop-Ups can be and this is exactly what it is about: taking the museum out to people, especially to those who might be deprived of the opportunity to experience it. We also met another young boy who, it seems, never had the privilege of going to school. He stayed with us for the whole time of the Pop-Up event where he absolutely mastered the dismantling and assembly of the replica dog coffin, which is part of the Pop-Up, that he even started showing others how to do it. As we left, he followed us on his bike waving goodbye and smiling.

While we were there, we visited the surroundings of the historic market including Esna Temple, historic houses and a Mamluk mosque. We believe it’s very important when working with any community to understand their heritage, history and traditions. It always helps a lot to connect with people and develop our outreach content and practices in relevance. It is something to be built over time and requires creating a network based on friendly approach with the locals and continuity.

We left Esna to Luxor where our Pop-Up took place in Thebes University. Students of different specialities joined us enthusiastically and eagerly to discuss more about the ancient Egyptian art and wood making. One of the students, Mariam, expressed her desire to focus her studies on ancient Egyptian art and design. She spent the rest of the time chatting with us, asking questions, receiving advice on academic references and even ended helping us with the Pop-Up, where she demonstrated the replica tools to other students and also how to re-assemble the replica dog coffin.

During our time in Luxor, we were invited for a meal at Abdel Rahmans family, a local who had been a senior inspector and had worked in archaeological excavations before, including on the tomb of Senneferi (TT99). He lives in Al Dabiyyah village on the West Bank near Luxor. After our meal he took us to his friend who is a local carpenter to see his tools. At the workshop, there was a deaf mute carpenter who was very eager to understand what we do. We coincidentally had How to make an Egyptian coffin book with us so we started showing him the images and demonstrating with the ancient Egyptian replica tools. It was great to see how such engagement can overcome limitations of communication and become the common language to connect.

After our return from our Upper Egyptian Pop-Up activities, we travelled back to Cairo for two more Pop-Ups. We received an invitation from The British University in Cairo, BUE, to give a talk followed by a Pop-Up. Luckily we had Julie Dawson, former head of conservation at the Fitzwilliam Museum and Helen Strudwick, senior curator of the ancient Egyptian collection at the Fitzwilliam Museum who gave a talk about ancient Egyptian woodwork making and painting techniques to students in the Art and Design department, followed by a Pop-Up where both students and professors participated.

This was followed by our last Pop-up museum in Cairo at The Gayer-Anderson Museum. It is a historic Mamluk house where British Major and antiquities collector, R.G. Gayer-Anderson Pasha lived from 1935 to 1942 and kept some of his collection. We set up the Pop-Up in the houses garden so all museum visitors were able to see us, chat with us and be as curious as they wanted to be. There was a group of retired elders who very enthusiastically joined us, some of whom were working in fields relevant to museums and Egyptology, so they shared and exchanged experience with us. The rest of the participants were families, university students, and tourists. In all Pop-Ups we also have replicas of ancient Egyptian joints and connections that people can experiment with like a puzzle. One of the students who visited us at The Gayer-Anderson Museum made a short video of all the joints being dissembled and assembled. She shared her video on social media which intrigued people, prompting them to ask more questions. You can see the video here!

Shortly after, we were encouraged by the head of museums sector in Egypt, Dr. Moamen Othman, who is a great supporter of the Pop-Up museum community outreach, to have a Pop- Up museum at the Graeco Roman Museum in Alexandria. We had our Pop-Up setting in the inner courtyard of the museum, where museum visitors could easily spot us on their way to the museum cafe or in passing. We spent there at least 4 hours continuously, where we received a wide range of participants including families, university students, school children, tourists, museum curators. This was preceded by multiple visits, research and discussions with the curators at the Graeco Roman Museum to integrate the relevant collection on display within the Pop-Up Museum context.

In all those Pop-Ups, we trained volunteers to join us, some of whom were high school students, university students or young people at their early stage career. This has given them the chance to join an experience they havent necessarily been exposed to before, know more about creative means of community outreach and it also it added another level of diversity and inclusion which we are keen on in our outreach programs.

As we ended 2023 and kicked off 2024 with these very diverse, thought-provoking, inspiring Pop-Ups, we are looking forward to planning more of them and collaborating with more museums and museum professionals, entities and individuals who are interested in taking history and heritage out to people where they least expect find it!

Created: 26 Mar 2024 Category: pop-ups

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