In 1988, I had the pleasure of going to Egypt for a few days with a tour group. We visited the pyramids, sailed on the Nile, walked through Luxor and Karnak, and even wandered the streets of Cairo. Like millions of others who have visited Egypt, we went to the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, known commonly as the Egyptian Museum. Two images remain with me of the museum. First, it wasn't as comfortable as museums I had visited in the U.S. This wasn't a museum where you sat to contemplate the items in the collection. Second, I remember that in one room (I believe the room with items from King Tut's tomb), we were not allowed to stand still; we have to keep moving. Why? Likely for security reasons as well as to ensure that everyone had a chance to view everything.
And I always remembered returning to our hotel one afternoon and seeing an increased security (military) presence. We were told that President Mubarak had been there for lunch and was still on the grounds. As we walked through the complex, we could see a group of men gathered near the pool. I have no idea if Mubarak was among them, since it seemed unwise to stop and stare.
In 1988, Muhammad Hosni Sayyid Mubarak had already been president for seven years. Now he has been president for over 29 years. The events occurring in Egypt aim to impact how long he remains president.
However, this is not a political blog, but one about digitization and so let me wonder about the preservation of Egypt's antiquities. The news media has reported vandalism at the Egyptian Museum. Items have been smashed. Heads reportedly ripped off of mummies. Are there images of all of the items that staff can use to guide them in their repairs (or piecing back together)? If an item cannot be repaired, are their images that can serve as their surrogates? Given the current state of Egypt, are their copies of those photos, videos, x-rays, etc., in other countries? Have they been digitized? Depending on the future of Egypt, could a virtual Egyptian Museum be launched that showed how it used to look and what it used to contains?
I can imagine that museums and other collections around the world are beginning to think about how they can help the Egyptian Museum and other collections in Egypt. Egypt will need to stabilize before work on restoring the collections can begin. Between now and then, let's hope that the collections are not further damaged. I doubt that the people of Egypt really want to lose those items from its past.
Addendum (1/31/2011): People have already documented some of the damage as well as formed a human chain around the Egyptian Museum in order to prevent further destruction.