The dimly lit marvels of Cairo’s Agricultural Museum
 
 

People usually think I’m joking when I fiercely recommend the Agricultural Museum as a must-see. Few I know have been there, either born-and-bred Cairenes or foreigners. But there is reason to go, I assure them.

Initially meant to record natural history from the pharaohs to modern times and provide information about literally everything agricultural in Egypt, the museum has become a favorite of sorts among people with a taste for the quirky sides of life.

Consider yourself Alice when you enter the gate of the vast premises of the museum, which originally included greenhouses and botanical gardens besides the endless exhibition halls. You will enter a different temporality altogether.

Wonderment resonates in dimly lit marvels suspended in time, which reveal much about the peculiarities of the ethnologist’s gaze, the legacy of imperialism in knowledge production and the beauty to be found in the preservation of decay.

Opened in 1938, the museum was announced as the second agricultural museum in the world, with the greatest collection of the time.

A Hungarian team under the director of Hungary’s Royal Agricultural Museum had been commissioned by King Fouad I for the planning and, in great parts, for the display. A former palace of Princess Fatima (1853-1920), daughter of Khedive Ismail Pasha, was chosen as a fitting location.

King Fouad wouldn’t live to see his idea implemented. After eight years of remodeling, the Agricultural Museum, or rather museum complex with sub-museums, laboratories, workshops and apparently a cinema, finally opened under King Farouk. Some parts were added later, others remain yet to be completed.

Or renovated. Time is nibbling on the dog-eared edges of history. Closed doors hint at whole wings shut off. There is rumor that some host wondrous specimens, slowly decomposing, and that with a little persuading the guards will take you into the locked-up realms of dust and debris. That somewhere in there is a lion.

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Agricultural Museum

It makes sense that Egypt, with its long history of agricultural projects, has a dedicated museum. The Agricultural Museum, however, leads deep into the rabbit hole.

We skip the Museum of Egyptian-Chinese friendship, inaugurated in 2013 and tucked away in what looks like a small administration office, and head for the Museum of Scientific Collections, assembled in the early years of the museum under the first, Hungarian director.

Rural life in all its glory, straight out of an ethnologist’s dream of the “real” Egypt, welcomes us in a dimly lit hall. Well-crafted, true-to-life statues silently go about their daily business, forever frozen in time, under our slightly self-conscious gaze. The promise of authenticity, one of post-colonialism’s bogeymen, peeps out from under the skirts of the life-sized fortune teller.

A guard, the first in a line of helpful, chatty shadows and initially mistaken for one of the statues, points out the wedding scene taking place, lets us stare at the bride modestly hiding in a palanquin on a slightly battered, stuffed camel, and then mischievously waves us through a small side door into a village house where the groom is getting ready. We tiptoe inside and find ourselves eye to eye with a belly dancer.

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Agricultural Museum

On the other side of the hall men sit in a street cafe. We can almost make out the smoke rising from their water pipes while they continue to laugh soundlessly at each others’ jokes. Further down the hall tribeswomen in traditional garments stand passively in line. None of them laugh.

The upper floor of the building is dedicated to everything animal in Egypt and beyond. A huge butterfly collection that belonged to King Farouk breathes the morbid smell these kind of collections always do, a peculiar mix of camphor balls, death and beauty. “Life,” spells a pleasant arrangement of pinned butterflies. A whale skeleton loiters forlornly in the hall. Desert creatures eerily bare their teeth in half light while a group of college students busily sketch dead, slightly disheveled nature.

The sheer amount and variety of exhibits is stunning. There are birds, hundreds of birds, lined up on their backs with their feet still tied together. The greatest collection certainly boasted quantity.

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Agricultural Museum

Questions of museology tiptoe out from behind the glass vitrines. As educational institutions, museums have the power to decide about objects, their value, and how they should be perceived. Museums are cultural practices reflecting their historical and cultural environments. Theaters of time, someone called them. While the Agricultural Museum was being built Egypt was transitioning from British occupation toward shady independence. Soon after a strong nationalism emerged that rediscovered its identity, notably in a narrative of soil and agriculture. The new narrative of the nation, however, often enough appropriated an image of “Egypt” shaped by colonial discourses rather than radically overthrowing imposed cultural assumptions.

While there is a shift in tone and aesthetics from the old parts of the museum, assembled under Hungarian and monarchal guidance, to the newer ones — for example the Museum of Ancient Agriculture, added under Nasser in the 1960s, which demonstrates an attempt to trace Egypt’s agricultural story back to prehistoric times — the legacy of colonialism weighs heavy. It is visible in the amassing of objects, the objectification of species and ethnic groups, the authoritarian attribution of values. In the ways the cultural practice of seeing is shaped. In the production of knowledge. In what is exhibited. And what is omitted.

“This, of course, is not the real life size,” says the guide, pointing at an arm-long model of a silkworm, sliced open to show its silk-producing insides.

The size obviously serves better visibility. It’s a little less obvious that its commodity value entitles the worm to be in the museum in the first place. Major trade routes, like the silk road connecting Africa, Europe and Asia, had led through Egypt since as early as the 1st century, making the area itself a desired commodity. Control over trade routes meant not only easy access to luxuries and prosperity but vast power in the world market. Fantasies about Egypt’s treasures were greatly aroused when it started to produce silk in the 7th century.

A critical approach doesn’t have a place in the official narrative of the museum. Not in the exhibits, the wall texts, the guides’ explanations, nor the brochure that is only handed out on request. Imperial interests quietly traipse along.

Another guide will later repeat the same words about a miniature model of a dairy factory, painstakingly detailed up to the tiny sinks where the workers, flaunting tiny elegant mustaches, are probably washing their tiny hands before entering the holy halls of cheese making. “Made in Germany,” says the little sign on the model. European standardized production methods, all the way to Egypt.

The guide points out a model of a cow udder, life-size this time, and then we enter a room full of skin diseases on one side and images of veterinarian interest on the other, right next to a heartbreakingly puny piglet fetus in formaldehyde.

The museum has its own rules of making sense. Cabinets of curiosities alternate with attempts to prosaically depict whatever mattered at the time with the greatest possible accuracy. And we oscillate between the large-eyed amazement of a five-year-old and a critically trained scrutiny of the sub-narratives the museum keeps quiet about.

Sometimes only the belief in the impossible will take you to wonderland.

Or to the lion. Deep in the belly of the museum we pluck up courage and ask to see it. We are led through another dark corridor to a back room that serves as perpetual storage for specimens in dire need of restoration. A black bear, a hippo and other mangy-looking creatures keep the lion company, their dignity lingering faintly like moth powder. He doesn’t look so good. The days of wild lions in Egypt are long gone.

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Agricultural Museum

Other halls are bathed in soft light filtering through high windows, spotlighting odd pieces here and there. There is a warm, tranquil feeling to these rooms that resonate heavy with history yet seem  utterly timeless. It’s a good place to linger.

And wonder. About the countless types of baked goods in the bread museum, ravaged by time. Or the legions of appetizingly arranged potato replicas. Imitations and natural exhibits alternate in the Museum of Plant Wealth, which occupies the bigger part of the final old building. The crops section has seen better days — some seedlings are rotting in their little mold-covered jars. The conservation of decay has its own beauty.

Food plays a major role in the museum. But while the much acclaimed fertility of the Nile valley may justify rooms full of apple diseases, the section dedicated to processed food is a treasure for visitors with an interest in graphic design. Not so much for the remnants of dried-up goo in ketchup bottles from the time of my grandparents, although it sends a little shiver of palpable reality down the spine, than for the original, beautifully designed labels. Time travels into the history of product design, right there in a pile of food cans.

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Agricultural Museum

Inspired by the museum’s aesthetics, Spanish artist Asunción Molinos Gordo borrowed its language of display for her WAM (World Agriculture Museum), which has been shown in several countries and just won a prize at the 2015 Sharjah Biennial. The installation presents factual and fictional contemporary discourses on food sovereignty, food security and the use of biotechnology in food production, turning the old museum attitude into a stage setting, all the way down to replicas of the showcases, the flaking green wall paint, and the signs’ typography.

Back outside in the real Agricultural Museum, there is still the Greek, Roman, Coptic and Islamic Museum, the Syria Hall, opened at the end of the three-year union of Egypt and Syria in 1961, the Cotton Museum and the Museum of Heritage Collections. A recently finished Museum of Art Collections is closed to the public. Every building is a whole new world.

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Agricultural Museum

We decide to take to the botanical garden. It must have been lush once. Old trees lean over dry grass patches, taking turns with statues. In the back a huge area lies waste. The newly appointed director, Mohamed Sobhy, has plans to revive the gardens and greenhouses. Especially after a recent scandal disclosed the farming of green beans by museum employees on museum premises. With a handful of visitors per day and an entrance fee of LE3, financial means are a bit scarce.

But maybe it’s not the worst thing that major renovations have been postponed so far. We promise to come again, and then walk back to the gate to leave wonderland.

The Agricultural Museum (Al-Mathaf Al-Zerai), Wezaret al-Zaraiya Street, Dokki, Cairo. Open Tuesday-Sunday: 9am – 2pm, telephone: 0233372933.

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Sara-Duana Meyer