MADA MASR

Cairo's Bizarre But Seductive Museum Of Agriculture

There is so much beauty to be found in the preservation of decay.Â

Statue of a Pharaoh in the Egyptian Agricultural Museum
Statue of a Pharaoh in the Egyptian Agricultural Museum
Sara-Duana Meyer

-Essay-

CAIRO â€" People usually think I'm joking when I fiercely recommend Egypt's Agricultural Museum as a must-see. Few, I know, have been there, either foreigners or those born and bred in Cairo. 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 museum's vast premises, which originally included greenhouses and botanical gardens in addition to 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.

When it opened in 1938, the museum cast itself as the second such 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 for much of 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 come to fruition. After eight years of remodeling, the Agricultural Museum, a complex with sub-museums, laboratories, workshops and apparently a cinema, finally opened under King Farouk. Some parts were added later, and 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 to visitors. 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. Legend has it that there is even a lion somewhere in there.

Wings and wings of wonderland

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"Â 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.

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 number 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.

Theater of time

Questions of museology tiptoe 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 afterward, 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 discourse rather than radically overthrowing imposed cultural assumptions.

While there is a shift in tone and aesthetic from the old parts of the museum, assembled under Hungarian and monarchal guidance, to the newer ones â€" for example, the Museum of Ancient Agriculture, added under President Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1960s, which demonstrates an attempt to trace Egypt's agricultural story back to prehistoric times â€" 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,"Â 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, and not in the brochure that is handed out only upon request. Imperial interests quietly traipse along.

Another guide later repeats 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,"Â the little sign on the model says. European standardized production methods, all the way to Egypt.

Meeting the lion

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 5-year-old and a critically trained scrutiny of the sub-narratives about which the museum keeps quiet.

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.

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 â€" 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 â€" although it sends a little shiver of palpable reality down the spine â€" than for the original, beautifully designed labels. Time travels into the history of product design, right there in a pile of food cans.

Inspired by the museum's aesthetic, Spanish artist Asunción Molinos Gordo borrowed its language of display for her exhibit 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.

Garden gone to waste

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.

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 just 3 Egyptian pounds (or 39 cents), 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.

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Geopolitics

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.


But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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