The Story of the Archive of the Egyptian Museum, Cairo (Asmaa El-Rabat, Egypt, ITP 2014)

Written by Asmaa El-Rabat, Head of Arhcive Section, Egyptian Museum, Cairo (Egypt, ITP 2014)

The history of the archive section of the Egyptian Museum, Cairo (AEMC) began in 2007, with a committee with Mr Mahmoud El Halwagy, and Dr Menat-Allah El Dorry, curators of the Egyptian Museum. They started making an inventory for the collection of glass plates in the photography section of the museum, located on the second floor. Before roll film and digital photography, glass negatives were the standard method of capturing photographs from the mid-19th century until the first decades of the 20th century.

Dr El Dorry collected a lot of information about the glass plates and tried to find funding for a new archive section. Not long after, Dr El Dorry left the Egyptian Museum, but she gave all the information to Asmaa El-Rabat, the current head of the Archive Section.

At the end of the December 2014, the then director of the basement section, now the Director of the Egyptian Museum, Ms. Sabah Abdel Razek, brought all the curators together to again work on creating an inventory for the glass plates. They finished an inventory for more than 3,000 objects.

The Egyptian Museum archive, Cairo, photographs material part, 2007.

Asmaa El-Rabat, the section’s current head, participation in this work in January 2015. When she saw the glass negatives, she remembered the archival sections she saw in different museums around the UK as part of the ITP Summer Programme. Asmaa asked herself why we didn’t have an archival section in the Egyptian Museum while we are one of the greatest museums in the world?

Asmaa worked on finishing the inventory from January to October 2015. She largely completed this work alone as the others curators had different commitments. She completed the inventory for around 5,000 objects, but also gave training to other curators about archiving and arranged for the shelving for the glass plates to be improved after removing dust from the collection. Asmaa also wrote articles in the British Museum’s newsletter about the Egyptian Museum’s archive.

Photo shows the final arrangements for the glass plates after improving the shelves, and cleaning process

In October 2015, Mrs. Elham Salah El-Din, the Director of the Museums Sector, established some new sections inside the museums such as museum education, marketing and archive sections. The first director was Dr Sayed Massoud and Asmaa was appointed as deputy head of the archive section.

 In August 2016, Asmaa became the head of the Archival section, a position she holds to this day. Upon taking the role, she created a plan for developing the archive:

  • Creating an inventory to show the archival materials that they have in the museum. This includes museum records, administrative documents, glass negatives, plans, manuscripts, scans of mummies, rare books and labels of objects.
Photo shows the archival materials, that we in have in AEMC
  • Collect all of the glass negatives into one place because they were spread across many different areas of the museum.
  • Work to remove heavy dust on the collections.
Photo shows removing the heavy dust over the glass Negatives, which were on the ground.
Photo shows the glass negatives after cleaning, and put then a new box
  • Improve the electricity in the archive area.
  • Complete the documentation for around 620 objects, which are from different sights in Egypt, such as Tal al-Qulzum excavations in Suez. After completing this work, file the data into excel spreadsheets with an elementary database.

In March 2017, we started working on the Egypt Documentation Project: Glass Negative Digitization and Preservation. This was a collaboration between the Ministry of Antiquities and the British Museum. Through this project we completed documentation and digitisation for around 10,000 glass negatives in the Egyptian Museum and around 8000 glass negatives in the Scientific Archive Documentation Centre (SADC) in the Ministry of Antiquities. We filed about half of them into a new database, which was prepared by the British Museum.

Training given by British Museum photographers.
The stages of preservation and rehousing for the glass negatives.
Metal cabinets to preserve the glass negatives.

In April 2018, we established the first exhibition for the archive section, in room 50 of the Egyptian Museum, Cairo. The exhibition was named Capturing Egypt on Glass: Photographic Treasures from the Archives of the Ministry of Antiquities. The display aimed to focus on some negatives topics, and captured Egypt through photographers’ lenses.

The final meeting for the archive team before the exhibition Capturing Egypt on Glass
Capturing Egypt on Glass exhibition

Now, we are still continuing documentation, rehousing and digitisation of the rest of the negatives and archival documents. Besides this work, Asmaa is giving training courses, lectures to improve teamwork skills and lectures and training workshops outside of AEMC to share what they learnt more widely.

Professional cooperation between archivists and other staff and institutions was very important. For example we participated in the cooperation project between the Ministry of Antiquities and the European Union for a new display of the Egyptian Museum Cairo by collecting suitable archival materials for the new display.