Italy comes to the aid of Alexandria
Funds and expertise from Italy mean the restoration of the Egyptian city’s Greco-Roman Museum will resume after a long delay. Por Garry Shaw

After being closed for five years, a museum in Alexandria housing the world’s most extensive collection of Greco-Roman art will be renovated and is due to reopen within 18 months, thanks to Italian support.

The Greco-Roman Museum closed in 2008 for conservation work on its 19th-century building and its library. However, a lack of money and the problems caused by the 2011 revolution meant that although work began, it was put on hold. In late October, Mohamed Ibrahim, Egypt’s head of antiquities, signed a memorandum of agreement with Italy’s ambassador to Egypt, Maurizio Massari, to restart restoration work on the museum. The Egyptian institution has a long history of Italian patronage; its first director, Giuseppe Botti, was Italian, as were successive directors until the 1952 Egyptian revolution.

The Italian government will provide funds for the restoration, while extra money will be raised through a debt-swap programme and the Italian Development Agency. The total funds will amount to $8m and the completed museum is expected to generate around 1,000 jobs. "There is a very clear link between culture and economic development, tourism and job creation," Massari told the news website Ahram Online. "This is not just about culture as an end in itself, but also about improving socio-economic conditions. Egyptian citizens will be the first to benefit." It is hoped that the agreement will enhance co-operation between Egypt and Italy, enabling experience and expertise to be shared.

The Greco-Roman Museum was founded in 1892 by the members of a small society known as the Athenaeum (now the Archaeological Society of Alexandria), who were concerned about the flow of antiquities into private collections. The collection moved to its current premises, a Greek revival-style building, in 1895, and opened its first ten galleries. Since then, the museum has expanded periodically, most recently in the early 1980s. Today it includes 27 galleries and a garden display area, all dedicated to objects dating from the fourth century BC to the third century AD.

The much-needed conservation work on the 113-year-old museum is to be conducted as a co-operative project between the Egyptian authorities and the Università degli Studi della Tuscia in Viterbo, Italy. The consortium has also been given permission to work in Saqqara’s North Cemetery, just south of Cairo, and at Medinet Maadi in the Faiyum Oasis.

The Alexandria museum’s galleries, as well as its building, will benefit; they will have new showcases, lighting, ventilation and security systems. A section of the museum will become a children’s museum, and another will be dedicated to research.

Before its closure, the museum housed around 40,000 objects, including mummies, a rare coin collection and statues. These were moved into storage between 2008 and 2010 in preparation for the renovations. In 2005, staff preparing for the museum’s closure unexpectedly found administrative records about local excavations and the museum’s history, spanning the period from the 1890s to the 1970s, in a storage space above the ticket office.

Other museum projects have also been undertaken in Alexandria in recent years. The Royal Jewellery Museum, which was built in 1919 and houses the jewellery of Mohammed Ali and his descendants, reopened in 2010 after several years’ restoration work, although it closed again after the 2011 revolution. In 2010, work began on a mosaic museum, to be built around the temple of Ras el-Soda.

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