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Fire Reported at Egyptian Museum; Hawass’ Deeply Flawed Crisis Response

Al Jazeera English‘s live blog from Cairo reported today at 6:12 p.m., Cairo time (11:12 a.m., New York time) that “the Egyptian Museum was fire bombed and the army is now trying to put out the fire.” In a recent news report, Al Jazeera stated:

The worst of the fighting was just outside the world famous Egyptian Museum.

CNN has now posted live footage of the mayhem in front of the museum, recorded from a balcony overlooking Tahrir Square in Cairo. At 1:16 into the video, Ivan Watson of CNN says this about the situation at the museum:

What you’re looking at right now is the Egyptian military spraying water from hoses in front of the Egyptian Museum, where flames erupted after the pro-regime combatants appeared to have thrown petrol bombs at the anti-regime opposition.

Here’s CNN’s report. (You can click the “full screen” icon at the right of the red bar, below the image, to get a better view.)

It’s astonishing, in light of the manifestly misleading, wishful-thinking statements by Zahi Hawass about the safety of Egypt’s antiquities, that Kate Taylor of the NY Times, relying on her phone interview yesterday with Hawass, reports on only “two episodes of looting that he said took place Friday night,” while ignoring or underplaying other subsequent episodes, including break-in attempts earlier this week at the Egyptian Museum, widely reported but unmentioned by Hawass.

The Associated Press had reported on Monday on “a fresh attempt to loot some of the country’s archaeological treasures” from the Egyptian Museum. “A military general at the museum said soldiers arrested about 35 men trying to break into the building on Sunday, and another 15 on Monday.” This does not jibe with Hawass’ declaration, in an update on his website yesterday, that “the monuments are safe because of both the army and the ordinary people.”

On his website, Hawass assures the world that “commanders of the army are now protecting the Egyptian Museum, Cairo, and all of the major sites of Egypt (Luxor, Aswan, Saqqara, and the pyramids of Giza) are safe. The twenty-four museums in Egypt, including the Coptic and Islamic museums in Cairo, are all safe, as well.” (Hawass also reported that he has just been “appointed as the Minister of Antiquities, a newly created department that will be charged with the care and protection of all Egyptian monuments and museums.”)

The latest Hawass update, posted today, provides a more detailed list of all the sites that he says “are safe.”

But online reports from international Egyptologists paint a more disturbing, if not officially confirmed, picture. Egyptologist Margaret Maitland‘s Eloquent Peasant blog, a go-to source for antiquities-related news in this unstable situation, links to a variety of reports from those on the ground or with close connections to archaeological sites. (Scroll down for her most recent updates.) Various online reports, none officially verified, suggest that serious looting may have occurred at Saqqara, the Memphis Museum and elsewhere.

Hawass has an enormous stake in having the world believe that Egyptian antiquities are safe. But his credibility as a reliable source is questionable. Now, with the disturbing visual evidence of an endangered Egyptian Museum, the world needs a full and accurate report of the current status of one of the world’s greatest cultural repositories and its celebrated holdings.

Going forward, Egypt needs to institute far more comprehensive disaster preparedness for its museums and archaeological sites. As Larry Rothfield, co-founder and former faculty director of the Cultural Policy Center at the University of Chicago (and author of a book on the looting of the Iraq Museum) wrote to me in response to this post:

The problem with
Hawass’ position is that he fails to take responsibility for having
failed to put in place contingency plans to protect his museum. Note that he
says there were only three tourist police in the entire building, and
they were there only because they got stuck having missed the chance to
leave before curfew.

If Egypt is unprepared for disaster, the same is
probably true of many other countries (the United States included). Any
repatriation arrangement must be predicated on well-established
disaster contingency planning backed by budgetary help from wealthier
institutions, where necessary.

For a joint statement on the Egyptian crisis from the Association of Art Museum Curators, Association of Art Museum Directors, American Association of Museums, Association of Academic Museums and Galleries, and College Art Association, go here.

an ArtsJournal blog