Some Thoughts on the Egyptian Uprising and the Attack on Art Institutions

A picture posted January 31st by blogger and Syrian journalist Danny Ramadan on Hyperallergic
**update** the Egyptian Museum as of 6:12 pm Cairo time appears to be on fire as reported on CultureGrrl's blog
**update** conflicting reports as of 12:12am Cairo time that the fires appear to be contained

Yesterday, I spent a great deal of lecture and seminar time discussing the Egyptian uprising with students and faculty. The images of massive surging crowds, standoffs between pro and anti-Mubarak supporters, and the spectre of violence and uncertainty have permeated the unfolding and escalating events. As I write this post on Wednesday morning (6pm Cairo time), tear gas and Molotov cocktails are now being used by the pro-government forces to attempt to disperse the crowds—the situation is beyond tense and very concerning.

For days now, these events have largely unfolded in Tahrir Square ("Liberty" in Arabic) only meters from the Egyptian Museum, and the conflicting reports about the looting and vandalism of the country’s cultural institutions have become a focal point of concern. Yesterday, I posted a YouTube clip reporting on the situation and the blogosphere has provided timely and on-the-ground reports about the status of many of the museums and libraries of Cairo (see examples here and here). Over the weekend, the National Geographic Society published a letter on its website from the Bibliotheca Alexandrina (the controversial Egyptian library and cultural centre in Alexandria) shedding some light on the nature of the tense and often confusing confrontations taking place on the ground:
To our friends around the world: The Events in Egypt
30 Jan 2011 
The world has witnessed an unprecedented popular action in the streets of Egypt. Led by Egypt’s youth, with their justified demands for more freedom, more democracy, lower prices for necessities and more employment opportunities. These youths demanded immediate and far-reaching changes. This was met by violent conflicts with the police, who were routed. The army was called in and was welcomed by the demonstrators, but initially their presence was more symbolic than active. Events deteriorated as lawless bands of thugs, and maybe agents provocateurs, appeared and looting began. The young people organized themselves into groups that directed traffic, protected neighborhoods and guarded public buildings of value such as the Egyptian Museum and the Library of Alexandria. They are collaborating with the army. This makeshift arrangement is in place until full public order returns. 
The library is safe thanks to Egypt’s youth, whether they be the staff of the Library or the representatives of the demonstrators, who are joining us in guarding the building from potential vandals and looters. I am there daily within the bounds of the curfew hours. However, the Library will be closed to the public for the next few days until the curfew is lifted and events unfold towards an end to the lawlessness and a move towards the resolution of the political issues that triggered the demonstrations. 
Ismail Serageldin
Librarian of Alexandria
Director of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina

Photographs of the destruction of French cultural symbols
circulated as part of the unfolding events of the 1871 Paris Commune
The question of why Egypt's museums have come under attack, by whom, and for what reasons, was part of many of the conversations I had yesterday. Having just introduced the Dada movement to one of my survey classes—a movement which emerged as both anti-war and anti-art during the unprecedented violence of World War I—many parallels were discussed between that moment in the early twentieth century and the one emerging in Egypt today, concentrating most specifically about the way “art” can become a focus of harsh and sustained criticism and attack, seen as both a tool of the state and a way to separate people through its appropriation, institutionalization, and end use. Looking back on the history of revolutionary action, the attack on museums and institutions of art and culture has figured prominently as part of the street level action. Importantly, many of these isolated events gained even more power through the modern era via the circulation of powerful photographic images loaded with symbolic associations. As early as the Paris Commune of 1871 and as recently as the infamous scene of the pulling down of the Saddam Hussein statue during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the technologically mediated images of toppled statues and looted museums have entered historical records as representations of resistance to what the art and monuments under attack represent and for whom they speak. 

An Egyptian soldier protecting the Egyptian Museum, image courtesy
of Associated Press/ Amr Nabil
In the case of Egypt, the attack on museums is tied up with the complicated associations that the art of Egypt has to the maintenance of a history of Western Civilization—a history largely located in the ancient past and clearly distant from the contemporary concerns of today’s Egyptians (the majority of whom are under the age of 30). As one of my students queried, “who cares about art and the protection of “precious” artifacts when the majority of people are living in poverty and without basic human rights?” On the other hand, as another student pointed out, the maintenance of Egypt’s lucrative tourism market “can not be ignored as part of its economic future.” There is also the very practical question of the high value and status of many Egyptian objects, fetching untold sums of money in the underground market for stolen art, and as another student suggested “provides quick and easy money for those who care nothing about art.” To whom do these objects belong, and for whom are they continuing to be exhibited and protected? As the fluid situation of Egypt unfolds, the question of art and culture with all of its loaded symbolic and material associations will no doubt continue to resurface.  But for now, the future of Egypt is being decided (quite literally) outside of the museum.