Friday, September 15, 2006

Pay attention, class. This is how not to run a museum.

On Thursday, 9th grade and 11th grade of Khartoum American School went on a field trip. That’s my grade and Edward’s grade. We’re both studying the ancient Nubian civilization of Kush, which was in what is now Sudan, and so our history and English teachers thought it would be cool to take us to the Sudanese National Museum, which is about a half-hour bus ride from the school.

They sent home a letter warning our parents to speak now if they didn’t want their kid taken outside the foot-thick walls surrounding the school compound, but there was no permission slip. Apparently that’s unnecessary.

Then they loaded all 21 of us into a rented bus with fringed windows and light fixtures, and off we went.

We attracted a lot of attention, which I thought was quite interesting, since our bus was as shabby as anything else on the road. Sometimes when we were stopped at traffic lights, Sudanese men in other vehicles would lean out their windows to test out their English on us. “Hello, how are you?” “I love you.” Stuff like that.

The museum, in some ways, was a bit of a disappointment. The main building has a collection of pottery, statuettes, spearheads, and other stuff from tombs. But it’s all in one hall, and in 15 or 20 minutes you can see everything. Someone who’d been there before told me that they used to have a nice display of gold jewelry (Nubians were famous for it – nub meant gold in some ancient language), but that the entire thing had been stolen a few years ago.

In other ways, though, the museum is absolutely amazing. Five or six stone temples have been moved, block by block, from holy land Jebl Barka, way out in the desert, to the museum grounds. The museum has built glass and steel shelters around them, to protect them from the elements, and you can go in and walk through the temple itself. It’s incredible. My favorite temple was one built by Hatshepsut, the female pharaoh who kept the throne when she was supposed to give it to her nephew. It was especially neat because I’d read about when she died, and how the jealous nephew went on a rampage and chipped off or covered up her name on all her monuments. This was one of those monuments! We saw his cartouche stamped into a wall, and found a color portrait of Hatshepsut in her ceremonial beard – since it had been covered up, the paint was miraculously preserved. That nephew who had meant to erase her from history achieved just the opposite.

There is almost no surface left blank – pictorial writing and elaborate portraits and stuff everywhere. In a few places, there’s still paint on the stones. I loved finding owls, elephants, geese, ankhs with arms, and two people holding hands, besides a prince with a slingshot. There’s also graffiti in Greek, and graffiti dated 200 years ago carved into the walls. Unfortunately, since there’s nothing to stop you from touching the carvings, it’s easy to find fresh graffiti carved and written across depictions of funerary boats. And there’s some kind of black fungus or rot growing in most of the temples. It’s obscuring and probably destroying huge swaths of writing. We saw no evidence of attempts to save the stone.

Likewise, stones that were found alone in the sand are set up in front of the museum with only a little canopy to protect them. My history teacher pointed out the oldest known example of Meroitic writing, a script unique to the Nubians, and said something to the effect that we should take a good look at it while we still could. Soon the dusty winds off the Sahara will grind it smooth.


Nathan said...

Ruth, while your response to the catcalls while on the bus seems quite appropriate, here is a hint. When you are in college and falling in love and someone tells you that he loves you, "Stuff like that," while still accurate, may need to be altered. Then again, you are a stunningly beautiful young women, so it probably is a pretty common occurence (as it should be for my niece). That comment wins for Comment-of-the-Day!

CuracaoChick said...

That's really sad. Museums may be boring sometimes, but I'd be sad if the stuff wasn't there anymore.