When the Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM) opens its doors to the world in 2022, it will be the largest archaeological museum complex in the world. The museum will host more than 100,000 artefacts, 20,000 of which have never previously been on display.
For the first time ever, King Tutankhamun’s entire treasure collection will be on display, as well as the shrines of the boy King. Artefacts from pre-historic times also will be featured, through Egypt’s many thousands of years of Pharaonic civilization, to the ancient Greek and Roman periods of Egyptian history.
An early part of the process of construction involved transporting a 3,200-year-old statue of ancient Egyptian King Ramses, weighing 83 tonnes, into its new home in the museum’s atrium. This £550,000 operation involved Army engineers and specialist contractors moving the giant colossus inside a cage suspended from a steel beam mounted on a truck, on road surfaces specially treated to ensure they could bear the weight.
Once the statue was in place, the atrium was built around it.
Grand Egyptian Museum is huge project
Hill International is an American construction consulting firm that provides services including programme and project management to clients involved in major schemes around the globe.
Waleed Abdel Fattah, senior VP at Hill International, and project manager for GEM spoke about the ambitious project, which will cost over a billion dollars. “The Grand Egyptian Museum is one of the greatest cultural projects happening in the world now,” he says, detailing the construction:
“The designers have created the building on a north-south axis, matching the old temples. The total area of the project is almost 491,000 square meters. The exhibition area, comprising around 100,000 artefacts, is 62,000 metres.”
GEM is, he points out, not confined to the museum galleries:
“It also includes the conference centre, a children’s museum, education facilities, the food court, and extensive gardens. One of the marks of the project is the outside pyramid wall.”
A significant design
The eastern façade of GEM, 46 metres high and over 800 metres long, includes seven pyramid shapes; seven is a number that has held significant meaning throughout Egyptian history. Illumination links the earth to the sky.
Dublin practice Heneghan Peng, winner of the international competition launched back in 2002, came up with a design that would make the museum’s structure effectively invisible from the plateau of Giza. A ridge a couple of km from the pyramids hides the majority of the structure; the rest shows only its narrowest side to the plateau.
The museum is oriented along sightlines based on the pyramids of Khafre, Khufu and Menkaure.
Not just a museum
“It’s not just a museum; it’s more of a complex with many components,” Fattah says. “The grand staircase is one of the main features, as you come into the building.”
At a length of 64 meters, rising 24 meters, with a width of 85 meters at the bottom and 17 meters at the top, the Grand Staircase is effectively a chronological stream. It carries visitors from modern Cairo back to antiquity with the view of the pyramids from the top.
Guests can see the pyramids clearly through a glass wall. This effectively draws the pyramids into the museum, making them part of the visitors’ journey. Meanwhile, artefacts along the staircase’s length will document the history of Pharaonic Egypt.
From the top of the staircase, which is flanked by the temporary exhibition, the Children’s Gallery and the researcher’s entrance, visitors can access the permanent exhibition spaces.
The Grand Egyptian Museum will present items in chronological galleries spanning the ages of Pharaonic history including Pre-History; Old Kingdom; Middle Kingdom; New Kingdom; and Late and Roman Period, as well as the Grand Staircase and the Tutankhamun Gallery.
A complex roof
“Another main feature, despite the fact no-one looks at it, is the folded plate roof,” Fattah adds. “The landscape is important. The majority of Egypt is desert, with greenery in the landscape around the Nile. The Nile cuts through Egypt, flowing from south to north. The wind direction in Egypt is north to south. In terms of sustainability, light and ventilation, it helps a lot that the building is designed on the same axis.
The folded roof, which gives ventilation and natural light throughout the building, was very complicated to execute.
“There are no straight lines,” says Fattah. “Everything is based on the axes of the pyramids. It’s a challenge.”
Heneghan Peng envisaged that the folded roof, made of reinforced concrete, would appear to float above the structure.
The slant of the roof aligns with the axis from the neighbouring pyramids. This is a conceptual link between modern Cairo and Egypt’s ancient history. The folded concrete roof slabs, consisting of cascading, sloping panels over an area of 355,200 square feet, are all unique. No two square metres are identical.
The team modelled the project using building information technology (Bim).
“Without such a tool allowing us to develop a model throughout the project, our life would have been, to say the least, not easy.”
A new museum for Cairo
The new museum will replace the famous Egyptian Museum in Cairo.
“One of the differences from the old Egyptian museum is that GEM has a storyline running through the building. It immerses you at every stage of Egyptian civilization,” says Fattah. “A lot of high-end technology, including virtual reality from various suppliers and designers from across Europe, will enrich the visitor experience.”
“I think it’s going to be extremely impressive. The ‘wow’ effect will be great.”
The third phase of the construction of the Grand Egyptian Museum is in progress; work is in its 113th month of the overall project duration. The site is 471,000 square meters in size in total, and work is progressing on the stonework, museum, conference centre, surrounding gardens and piazza area.
Transporting & restoring artefacts
In August this year, a 45-metre ancient Egyptian ship was painstakingly transported 7.5 km from the Giza pyramids plateau to its building at the Grand Egyptian Museum.
The ‘solar barque’, a ritual vessel intended to carry the resurrected king across the skies, was, it is believed, made for Pharaoh Khufu, or Cheops.
“As part of the second phase of the project, we built a restoration centre run by The Ministry of Antiquity for restoring all the artefacts that will eventually go inside the building. An underground tunnel allows the museum to then move the artefacts from the restoration centre into the building.
“We, through the client, have gone through an international tender process. Now we have an independent operator with a huge museum background who has come on board. They who will maintain and run and keep the experience interesting for everyone.”
Sustainability at the Grand Egyptian Museum
A number of sustainability measures went into the design, as well as the operations.
“The museum will be a symbol of successful sustainable design for Egypt,” says Fattah. “Even prior to the international competition, a great deal of thought went into the project. The location was studied closely.”
“The design team took the allocation of the building, its direction, and the flow of light and air into account. They were looking to the old Egyptian civilization for inspiration, in terms of how they aligned the temples with the direction of the sun. The sun will fall directly on the statue of Ramses on particular dates, for example.”
“The project considered conservation and sustainability measures at every stage. The gardens and greenery have been designed to blend into the landscape. Plus, the acoustics have been really well and imagined and executed, too.”
In terms of the museum’s digitisation strategy, he says:
“The Egyptian government and the Ministry of Antiquity worked in parallel through the construction of the restoration centre to create a database. This references and digitises every single artefact in three languages: Arabic, English and Japanese. A new website is under construction, and a virtual reality experience is in the planning stages.”
The latest state-of-the-art technology is present throughout.
“In terms of the legwork for the database, the data collection has been ongoing for years, now. This is largely through the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquity, with the support of international expertise, some of which has come through Hill International.”
The Grand Egyptian Museum & Giza Vision 2030
GEM is part of the ambitious Giza Vision 2030.
This encompasses the Pyramids Plateau development plan, the Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM), an open Sphinx Museum, and the Khufu Avenue, which will extend along 8 km linking Sphinx Square in Mohandiseen to the Pyramids, along with a monorail covering the same distance, and the revitalisation of the current Nazlet El Seman area, which will be rebranded as Sphinx Village, affording a better quality of life for its residents.
“We had involvement in many of these projects,” says Fattah. “The area from the museum up to the plateau of the pyramids is now clear. There will be an underground station close to the museum, and high-end hotels and attractions not far from the location. The whole network, bridges and so on, have been designed and engineered to serve the museum.
“A new airport will ensure shorter flights. There are plans for new roads. The high-speed monorail is also in progress. It will be an exciting experience to go from the pyramid plateau to the museum.”
In terms of the construction, Fattah says, the roof has been the most challenging aspect of the project:
“It took global expertise to achieve the roofing. There are no straight lines; everything is at an angle. Coordination between all the different elements of the project could be difficult at times: the interaction between the exhibition, the building and the technology.”
“We started construction in 2012. Over time, technology developed and evolved. Our vision was to use only state-of-the-art technology. So, we had to adjust to incorporate some of the latest technology as we developed the exhibition. This also meant sometimes we had to re-open the ceilings and walls to accommodate some of the technologies.
“But I think the result speaks for itself. You really feel you have achieved something, having gone through a process like this.”
Constructing the Grand Egyptian Museum – a three phase process
The ceremonial cornerstone of the Grand Egyptian Museum was laid in early 2002. In 2003, after an extensive international competition, Irish architectural firm Heneghan Peng won the main contract for the design of the Grand Egyptian Museum. In fact, in total, according to the Egyptian government, a team of 300 people from 13 companies in 6 different countries contributed to the design phase of the project.
Construction then proceeded in three distinct phases:
Phase I was the execution of tasks to clear and secure the site, preparing it for the construction of buildings.
Phase II saw the construction of a fire station and an energy centre to supply electricity and air conditioning to the site. A world-class conservation centre apart from the main museum building was also created.
Finally, Phase III involved land excavation and contouring, the construction of the main museum building, and site landscaping.
One of the most spectacular museums in the world
The original estimate of the cost of the Grand Egyptian Museum was around $500 million. However, delays, changes, and other factors drove the final price tag for the complex to over $1 billion.
The museum is also planning an online strategy to allow universal access to its collections and exhibitions. However, for the moment, Fattah explains, this is in the planning stage:
“This is something that is in development: an impressive high-end strategy that will surprise people with its sophistication.”
“GEM will be one of the most spectacular museums in the world. We are very proud of our association with it.”