Blog Post #76: Interview with Heba Abd el Gawad of Egypt’s Dispersed Heritage Project

Our blogs posts in February and March feature public scholars working across various media who are pushing for creative, inclusive, and ethical means of representing the ancient world. All of these individuals will be presenting at our upcoming colloquium, “Presenting the Past: Responsible Engagement and Ancient Mediterranean History”. This colloquium asks how we as educators inside and outside the academy can more effectively participate in public discourse about the ancient Mediterranean. How do we engage in responsible public scholarship that is more inclusive of past diversity and modern audiences? We’re excited to feature the work of several public scholars who are creating innovative and compassionate answers to this question.

Could you start by introducing “Egypt’s Dispersed Heritage Project” for readers? What is its central mission?

The Egypt’s Dispersed Heritage project responds to the pressing need to address colonial history of collections of Egyptian archaeology and to find new ways through which contemporary Egyptians can assume greater agency over their heritage dispersed all over the world today. There is a piece of Egypt in nearly every major city around the world as documented by the Artefacts of Excavations project. The British led collection and distribution of finds from Egypt to the world is the largest in scale and scope in the history of archaeology. Partnering with Egyptian community initiatives, comic and visual artists, Egyptian community schools and 5 UK based museums with Egyptian collections, namely the Petrie Museum of Egyptian and Sudanese Archaeology, Horniman Museum and Gardens, Liverpool World Museum, Manchester Museum, National Museums of Scotland and the Egypt Exploration Society, the project was a platform for the Egyptians to express their feelings about the removal of their heritage abroad. Our mission is to centre Egyptian voices, views, and validity in the interpretation, representation, and management of Egyptian collections hosted in foreign museums. 

How has your work sought to engage the public in conversations and critiques about this dispersed heritage? What have you learned from this work?

Comics has the ability to transform extremely complex concepts into simple visuals which could be easily understood by various literacies. Hence, our choice of the medium to be our main mode of engagement with the Egyptian public on social media. This allowed us to reach the Egyptian multivolcality populating social media while allowing them to openly respond and directly engage uncensored and at their own discretion and time openly. We kicked off our programme of activities with Nasser, Heba, and our dispersed heritage comics series. We were keen for our comics to be relevant to not only the current debates surrounding heritage discourse but primarily to Egyptians’ lived experience, needs, and expectations. This relevance ensured the Egyptian community could find it relatable. It also responded to contemporary Egyptians’ needs and expectations such as the struggle to obtain visas to visit other parts of the world. While the comics were deliberately Egyptian centred, they still presented palimpsests of place, between Egypt and the UK, and time, between ancient, historic and contemporary moments in which one set of issues and moments resonates with others, where the Victorian exploitation of an ancient artefact can speak to seemingly unrelated modern injustices and concerns around migration and globalization.

Comic strip responding to Egyptian celebrations of Tutankhamon centenary in 2022

Heba: so you are the one who built the tomb?

Ancient Egyptian: yes

Heba: while you were the one who contributed to its discovery?

Egyptian archaeologist: yes

Heba: and you are the one who fought to ensure all the  Artefacts stayed in Egypt?

Egyptian anticolonial activist: Yes!

Nasser shouting: so who is this?!!!!

Through the project, I have learnt how privilege is invisible for the privileged. Foreign museums and their publics take for granted their privileged access to Egyptian heritage. They do not realise how this very same access is denied to Egyptians. While publics around the world can physically and intellectually handle Egyptian material, contemporary Egyptians are denied these opportunities in and outside Egypt. Equally, museums seem unaware of the impacts the disenfranchisement and orphaning of ancient Egypt from its contemporary community have on the daily lives of Egyptians today. From socio-political stigmas and stereotypes to absolute invisibility of a whole population, the after effect of how Egypt is represented and displayed in museums is drastic on us, Egyptians. A price we are paying daily. Egyptian galleries in foreign and domestic museums are, thus, violent spaces of discrimination and displacement for ancient and contemporary Egyptians. All this makes colonialism for us alive and kicking. Museums’ tendency to refer to colonialism as a thing of the past in its current alleged “decolonial turn” is abusive.

Through the project, I have learnt how privilege is invisible for the privileged. Foreign museums and their publics take for granted their privileged access to Egyptian heritage. They do not realise how this very same access is denied to Egyptians.

Heba Abd el Gawad

The use of satire through comics in engaging multivocality and “multidirectional curation” has been central to your work. How is satire a powerful tool in this regard?

Egyptians have used satire for socio-political activism since ancient Egyptian times. It was one of the main anticolonial activism tools adopted by Egyptians. Egyptians are renowned for their sense of humour used mainly as a coping and conflict resolution mechanism. We saw it as part of Egypt’s intangible heritage and lived experience which allowed us to stay true to our mission of contributing to Egyptian lives. One of our aims was to develop interpretation tools rooted in Egyptian ways of being. Satire helped us achieve this through our comic strips.

Comics on Amelia Edward’s legacy and her claims to protect Egyptian heritage by reporting objects out of Egypt which led to physical and intellectual destruction and extraction of heritage:

Nasser: you are destructing your country’s heritage

Amelia:khabibi you are destructing heritage

Heba: Finally someone will help us!

Amelia: I will keep it safe in London

Heba: Hang on Miss!!!

What impacts do you hope this research and its findings will have on the ways in which museums themselves address their roles in these stolen pasts? What outcomes do you aim for?

I hope museums recognise they are not solely curating objects, they should be curating relationships between local communities and their heritage. Community involvement in collections should not be a side “engagement” activity to fulfill a moral obligation as is the case today. It has to be integrated in the organisational, curatorial, and managerial structure within museums. Museums, today, are looking for quick fixes to a traumatising past. They need to recognise how this is a long negotiation process which will continue to change as communities and circumstances change. No one size or shape of community involvement can fit all collections or all communities. Only through a case by case long term community centred and serving dialogue, museums can initiate the reparation and reconciliation process they owe communities. 

How can we (the viewing public) think critically about what we’re seeing when we view Egyptian objects in foreign museums?

I think once you step into an Egyptian gallery you need to ask yourself two questions: how did all of these human remains and their belongings end up being here and how would you feel if this was you or a member of your family body or belongings? Only then, you can see the ancient and contemporary Egyptians as human beings who were forced to lose their right to consent through past and continuing colonialism. You should not lose your right to consent once you die. Wishes of the dead should be respected even if they died thousands of years ago. Asking yourselves these questions might help you empathise with us and see us as people not exotic beings and their things.

Comics on Egyptians being ignored in discussions on ethics of researching mummified Egyptian human remains

(a) White male scientist: I think it’s better to unwrap the linen shroud

Nasser: Can I say something?

(b) White male scientist: But I think this will be unethical?

Heba: Hey bro!

(c) Far right white male scientist: But I think it’s necessary for our research purposes

Nasser: Hey sir!

Egyptian heritage and museum specialist Heba Abd el Gawad is the project researcher for the AHRC funded project: ‘Egypt’s Dispersed Heritage: Views from Egypt’ at the Institute of Archaeology, University College of London aimed at amplifying the voice, visibility, and validity of modern Egyptian communities in UK museums. She has previously led various curatorial roles in the UK including co-curating Two Temple Place’s 2016 Beyond Beauty: Transforming the Body in Ancient Egypt exhibition, project curator of the British Museum’s Asyut Project, and more recently has guest curated Listen to her! Turning up the Volume on Egypt’s Ordinary Women exhibition at the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology. She specialises in the history of Egyptian archaeology and Egyptian perceptions and representations of ancient Egypt.

She has been selected as one of the most influential 21 Egyptian women in 2021 for her community work in the heritage sector.

Published by Peopling the Past

A Digital Humanities initiative that hosts free, open-access resources for teaching and learning about real people in the ancient world and the people who study them.

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