Heba Abd el Gawad | Egypts Dispersed Heritage

Mar 29, 2021 18:13 · 3611 words · 17 minute read

Hi everyone! This is Heba Abd Gawad, and I’m an Egyptian egyptologist, which means that I specialize in the history and archaeology of Egypt. Today I’ll share with you some of my own frustrations with how ancient Egypt is presented, or perhaps “mis-presented”, in museums all over the world and some of the new ways that I myself – together with my colleague Alice Stevenson at the University College of London’s Institute of Archaeology, with a collaboration with too many partners from Egypt, artists as well as community activists and cultural organizations, in addition to six institutions in the UK – working our way around how can we change the way Egypt is presented and displayed in museums in the UK, and perhaps, in the future all over the world.

01:06 - How many Egypts do you think there are? There is the Egypt that you see in museums, this is usually one of mummies, pharaohs, and gold; one of achievements, one of luxury, and one of contributions to the human world. Nowhere do we hear of perhaps the failures of the ancient Egyptians, neither do we hear of the miseries of the ancient Egyptians, or perhaps the exploitation that they might have faced by the higher authority and power. It’s usually a very happy space.

Not only is it a happy space but it’s equally frozen in time and place. We only see Egypt as pharaonic. We only see Egypt as ancient. The other layers of Egypt are totally hidden. Not only is it frozen, but it’s equally orphaned. It’s a concept rather than a country that has no connection whatsoever with its modern communities. The Egypt that you see there is one that is happy, one that is frozen, and one that is orphaned. This is totally different than my Egypt.

My Egypt is one that is quite a depiction of continuity and change, where there are the pyramids but there are also clothes lines where you hang your wash, and even this has a cultural code. You will see men’s underwear at the very front of the line, making an announcement that there is a man in the house. It’s part of a social stigma I would say, but also part of a cultural goal that everyone tends to follow, be it from the poorest of social strata to the richest of social strata.

It’s also an Egypt that has a multiplicity of historical layers, a multiplicity of ethnicity. Even the Arabic that we speak has ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, Coptic, Greek, Italian, Spanish, English words and also Arabic words. So, it’s just a representation of our multi-layered and multi-ethnic history. But nowhere do we see this Egypt in any of the museums. This is not only problematic for museum displays, but it’s also problematic for us because of how we are made absolutely invisible, how we are made absolutely silenced from these displays.

It means that we end up being disenfranchised and at times displaced from our own local spaces, to give space to the heritage that the West is fascinated with.

03:44 - There is another problem that Egypt is facing today. Currently museums all over the world are rethinking how can they make amends with the past, how can they give back what they might have gotten from other cultures, or from other communities illegally, or perhaps unethically. How could all this be healed? Interestingly, even the current discussion of decolonization and the current way of trying to re-think or confront a past that was full of violence, that was full of many lives and memories lost; Egypt remains a blind spot.

It’s totally obscured from the discussion. The discussions are usually talking about Africa, but Egypt is not perceived as part of Africa. The discussions are usually about objects, and not about people and they are always led by Western academics and Western institutions. It’s also very museum-centered. It’s only happening for the benefit of museums, not for the benefit of the people or the communities. Nowhere do we see the source communities in any of the current discussions of decolonizing museums in the West.

04:59 - How then can we solve this? Or, at least, how did we think that we can have some solutions for this? One solution that we’re putting on the table is that maybe this can change through changing the questions that we’re asking. Instead of focusing on repatriation, which is something that would take years to resolve and it’s something that even today remains dictated again by the Western academic institutions, and by organizations while the multi-vocality of communities are very difficult to get involved in – then perhaps we need to change the question that we’re asking.

How can we use the museum collections and the archives that exist today, in the West, in a way that can benefit the source community’s lives in a way that it can bring meaning to them, either through social justice or social inclusion. That wouldn’t solve the past, but at least we can ensure that we are on the right track, that whatever we’re doing would end up being beneficial for the communities, from which we have extracted the heritage in in the first place.

Who make meaning, and bring meaning to this heritage, up till today every day.

06:12 - One of the ways to bring social justice and social inclusion to communities, by using these collections and archives, is through making sure that they are involved in the current conversations that the museums and Western academia is having surrounding those collections, and their colonial legacies. How then can we achieve this? Luckily, Egypt’s social media offers us an excellent platform to ensure that we can communicate with the Egyptian public.

Perhaps not all Egyptians, but I was able to correspond with a few of them, and they had an opportunity to talk to us. In this respect we are not talking down to them, but we’re opening our platform to be used as a dialogue where we can interact live with the people of Egypt today, in how they perceive the many ethical questions that are being raised, and the current active mode of confronting colonial legacies. Egypt’s social media is a perfect platform for this, because it’s quite representative not only of the majority of young Egyptians, but equally different social strata.

So, this means that we can then talk to Egypt’s multivocality, and Egypt’s multivocality could talk back to us at the same time.

07:28 - So we needed to find a very Egyptian way of using social media to engage with the Egyptian public. One thing that Egypt is known for is its sense of humor. Egypt’s sense of humor is renowned perhaps all over the Middle East, I wouldn’t argue that it’s the world, but at least the Middle East. It’s a sense of humor that is used not only to cope with difficulties, but it’s equally a problem-solving mechanism that we tend to use whenever we are faced with a difficult question, or perhaps some sort of disturbing past or even present – a comic strip or a meme can be our way into openly, and perhaps transparently discussing it.

Then came Nasser Junior. Nasser Junior is an upcoming cartoonist, who tends to use social media as his own platform to release his art. Not only is Nasser one of the very few cartoonists that are extremely funny and has a very wide fan base, but his art can allow us to achieve the “three Rs” that we think are key in communicating with source communities. First of all, his discussions or the comics that he tends to release, are quite relatable to the majority of the people be it in Egypt or in the global world – they are equally relevant.

He also tends to raise problems that all of us tend to face, not just in Egypt but also all over the world. Most importantly, his work is quite responsive as his comic here makes very apparent. Whatever he releases is very responsive to current events or even current concerns and worries, which the whole world tends to suffer from. So, being relevant, being relatable, and being responsive we felt are the key “three Rs” that can help us engage with the communities effectively, equally and transparently.

Most importantly, because of how the concept of Egypt is currently a very Western concept, because it’s the by-product of colonialism, he can help us “re-Egyptianize” ancient Egypt again. He’s already doing this with world-famous characters like Superman, Batman and even Simba. He manages to Egyptianize every Western concept, and the ancient Egypt that you see in the museums today is a Western concept. We felt that through working with Nasser we would be able to Egyptianize ancient Egypt, and how it’s presented not only in the museums but throughout all media.

Most importantly for Egypt is that Nasser himself and his fan base are quite representative of the majority of Egypt’s population – that is the youth, they 61% that make up the whole of Egypt. That is a very important target audience that we were very keen to engage with, and involve in the conversation.

10:28 - But apart from that, social media is also known for how it can be difficult as a platform. Although it is quite open and accessible, it is also difficult to deal with difficult issues or deal with concerns that might raise traumatic experiences, and talking about colonialism can be traumatizing for communities today. It can be distressing for the successors of the previously colonial powers. We were very keen on not only making our discussions transparent, but equally sensitive because what counts here is being inclusive and reaching our goal, rather than being radical in our message.

Here sensitivity comes first before being radical.

11:21 - I’ll share with you one of the things that we’ve used, and it’s perhaps the most successful model that we’ve managed to introduce, given the feedback that we’ve received from everyone online, but I’m obviously biased. It’s the comic series that we released. As you can see from the photograph we called it “Nasser, Heba and our Dispersed Heritage. ” Here we are representing the multi-vocality of the Egyptian community, be it the community of practice that is myself, Heba the archaeologist, the community itself, the community of place as in “Nasser.

” He belongs to a community we are interested in, being a comic artist. We are also presenting ancient Egypt with this project, and we’ve personified ancient Egypt here as a character with us a main actor because we would like to perceive ancient Egypt here as displaced individuals, like the many displaced individuals today all over the world, particularly from the Middle East after the 2011 political uprisings. The ancient Egypt that we find in museums outside of Egypt exist for us as displaced human beings.

The conversation that we’re having with Nasser involves the variety of heritage issues that are currently pressing in the world of museums, and in how Egypt is displayed throughout the world. This is the main theme that we’re using for our comics. We were also very keen to return agency back to the people, by sharing that this is not just Egypt’s dispersed heritage, but it’s where the space of our dispersed heritage exists, it is “our here. ” “Our here” refers to the majority of Egyptians, so we’re operating in three community groups: myself, Nasser, and ancient Egypt.

We’re operating with ancient Egypt as displaced individuals, and we are bringing back the agency of the dispersed heritage to the source communities, back to the people.

13:32 - We’ve got six partners in the UK. We’re working with five UK museums, the World Museum in Liverpool, the Teaching Museum of Egyptian and Sudanese Archaeology, the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, Manchester Museum and the Horniman Museum and Gardens in London as well as with the Egypt Exploration Society – this was the society that was in charge of all the British-led excavations that took place in Egypt during the colonial era between 1880 and 1980.

We’ve extended this era to include 1980 because this is the time when exporting artifacts from Egypt was prohibited by a law from the Egyptian government. We’ve used the case of Britain and the scale and scope of how Britain or the British-led excavations and the British-led work collecting artifacts in Egypt in terms of archaeology have led to the dispersal of Egyptian artifacts throughout the whole world. This is the largest endeavor of its kind in the world, and this is based on the findings of our previous project that was led by Alice Stevenson and professor John Baines entitled: Artifacts of Excavation.

That project was based at the Petrie Museum of Egyptian and Sudanese Archaeology. With such a wide dispersal of Egyptian artifacts, how can we display this to the Egyptian people? How can we bring this conversation to the Egyptian people and let them know the scale and scope of this issue? To do this we presented a conversation that took place between myself and Nasser, when I was discussing the extent, scale and scope of how Britain was involved in extracting artifacts from Egypt and exporting them to 350 institutions in 27 countries, in the five continents.

The immediate response from Nasser was to wrap himself up like a mummy. Why was Nasser wrapping himself up like a mummy here? It was because he felt that that would be the only way he could travel the world. People like myself and Nasser, as well as perhaps the majority of the Egyptian and Middle Eastern communities struggle to get visas to enter the very same countries that hold our heritage. While our heritage is able to travel the world, we are usually denied access, we are usually denied entry.

What we’ve done then is that we brought the information about the extent and scope of colonial extraction and exportation of archaeological artifacts, and made it very relatable and relevant to a concern that most of the Egyptian and Middle Eastern communities as a whole struggle with today – that is being able to travel outside of our countries, and enter the many countries that host our heritage.

16:30 - The responses that we got online were very sympathetic. Perhaps it is apparent that the point that we’re raising is that it’s not only Nasser who feels that ancient Egyptian mummies have a better chance of traveling the world. The question that came up here was how heritage is prioritized over lives. Since the 2011 uprisings we’ve seen a rise in the funds offered by Western countries to be able to protect our heritage, yet refugees from the Middle East were denied entry.

Refugees were not very welcome in most of the very same countries that were offering money to protect our heritage. Whenever there is the question of our heritage or our lives, our heritage wins. It is priceless, while our lives are cheap. That was also an argument that the Egyptians, and perhaps the wider Middle Eastern community can make regarding these persisting colonial practices and colonial legacies. This was our way to show that these imbalances as well as the racism and exploitation are still ongoing.

17:44 - Perhaps the other most fashionable debate that we’re having today – and I’m stressing the fact that it’s fashionable because it’s only being discussed today, although it has been happening since the 1880s – is the usage of Egyptian human remains, and the extent to which they should be displayed in museums. As well as the ethical complications that comes with not only with their display in museums, but also their research by museums. The problem that we have with current discussions regarding ancient Egyptian human remains is that, again, the discussions are Western-led.

They are led by the Western institutions, and because of the fact that there is this persisting racist perception that ancient Egyptian human remains are unclaimed and uncontested due to the, again, racist colonial perspective that the modern Egyptians are not the successors of the ancient Egyptians, and the ancient Egyptians are not our ancestors. Due to this fact, we are not perceived as an important variable in the discussions that are happening today regarding the ethical implications of displaying, and researching human remains.

19:04 - The solution that we developed involved bringing an archival document from the Horniman Museum and Garden that discussed the unwrapping of one of the mummies, together with a coffin that is currently also in display in the Horniman Museum and Garden. This is the same method that we use with all our comics. We usually make every comic that we release evidence-based. When discussing any type of topic based on objects and archival material that exist in our six UK museums and institutional partners, we tried to make the discussion quite local and quite Egyptian, by bringing a famous scene from a very famous Egyptian comedy movie called the “Great Fava Beans of China.

” There is a scene from the movie was turned into an Egyptian meme and became widely shared concerning being ignored in discussions. We used this scene and made it into a comic where you can see Nasser and myself between two white male scientists. We used two white male scientists on purpose, and they are both discussing the ethics of displaying and researching ancient Egyptian human remains, while myself and Nasser are standing in the middle and we are struggling to be heard.

This is quite relevant, relatable and responsive to the sensational news stories that have been dominating the media between 2019 and 2020 about certain research that one would perceive as a bit unethical, coming out. Discussions have risen regarding the ethics of such research, and regarding the wider ethics of displaying Egyptian human remains while Egyptians themselves are totally sidelined and ignored during such discussions. We tried to make this very clear, and we tried to make this very apparent through our comic.

The responses that we received from the people were very interesting, and if they show that the Egyptian community’s perception is diverse and varied as to whether we should display or not display human remains. Again, something that stood out to us is that usually the Western perspective views local communities as one homogenous group, which is quite a racist view. Because the community in itself is not only multi-vocal, but it’s equally diverse in how it perceives itself and the world.

The conclusion that we got from the community responses that we received made us think that in the end communities are interested in being part of this discussion. They are there, and they are making their opinions out in the open. It’s us who are not listening to them.

22:08 - What we tried to emphasize to the museums, and also the wider community with our comics via social media, is that there are assumptions that Western museums make about human history as a universal value, but at the same time we are denied visas to these same Western countries. The conclusion that we want to communicate is that universalist philosophies are usually Western constructions, and are biased. Also, that some colonial perspectives and power imbalances still persist until today.

In fact, even in discussions on other topics the colonial perspective still persists, in the sense of what counts as continuity, what counts as community and change. How we define “heritage” also comes from what the West perceives as heritage. Again, it is the West who gets to decide who owns this heritage, be it human heritage or something that belongs to the community of origin. Again, local perceptions and emotional attachment to heritage is absolutely sidelined or excluded from these conversations.

23:53 - What we should think about is how there is this perception that confronting colonial legacies and their practices is something of that belongs in the past; that these are practices and legacies that do not exist in the present, or that do not have an impact on communities today. But this is not true. From what we’ve seen, many of the colonial practices that led to these objects being taken from their countries of origin still persist, especially in the way that source communities are absolutely sidelined from current decolonization efforts.

In terms of decolonization, the perception of Western museums regarding why they are doing all of this comes from a very self-centered motivation. They are participating in decolonization to confront the past, but the reality of confronting any of the persisting colonial practices and their legacies has always been a matter of social justice. And there are usually two “W’s” that one should ask him or herself before attempting any act of decolonization, being inside the museum or outside: who are you doing it for, and for who? If the local communities or the less privileged, or the less represented and those who have been silenced and absent throughout are not at your core motivation, then what you’re doing is simply recolonizing.

This is quite important in achieving social justice. This is something that we don’t only owe the social communities, it’s something that we owe ourselves and future generations. Thank you so much for having me. This research has been funded by the UK’s Art and Humanities Research Council, and we’re very grateful to our Egyptian communities without whom we wouldn’t have managed to achieve any of this. Thank you so much. .