Amid Violence in Egypt, An Electronic Eye on Museums

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A bonfire in Tahrir square. Journalists detained by the army. Clashes between protestors and police. This is the narrative of Egypt's protests delivered to the world through a flurry of Twitter updates and steady parade of increasingly iconic images on major new outlets.

Art vandalism has been a form of cultural warfare since the French Revolution.

But one group is telling a different story. "We egyptologists, archaeologists, anthropologists and other specialists who work in Egypt we cannot ignore the hard social, economic and political conditions people are living in Egypt. We support the righteous demand for justice and democracy," declares the welcome page of the Egyptologists for Egypt Facebook page. "And we keep an eye on the monuments."

A few stray reports have already captured the potential side effects of political revolution on Egypt's cultural and archeological heritage. One of the most eye-catching came from the Associated Press on Saturday, describing the desecration of mummies in Cairo's famed Egyptian Museum. "The museum, which is home to the gold mask of King Tutankhamun that draws millions of tourists a year, also houses thousands of artifacts spanning the full sweep of Egypt's rich pharaonic history," Maggie Hyde and Maggie Michael of the AP reported. "Before the army arrived, young Egyptians -- some armed with truncheons grabbed off the police -- created a human chain at the museum's front gate to prevent looters from making off with any of its priceless artifacts."

This Egyptologists group is comprised of hundreds of archaeologists, anthropologists, restorers, technicians, and other Egypt-enthusiasts, both prominent and amateur, focused on tracking the state of Egypt's rich archeological history. While other organizations have called upon Egypt's government to protect its cultural heritage, the group is half discussion forum, half ad hoc news aggregator, featuring up-to-the-minute updates on the state of Egypt's cultural institutions.

"The aim of the group is: 1) to support the Egyptian people's demand for justice and freedom, and democracy, and 2) to spread first hand news from the field: many of us have phone numbers of colleagues, friends, relatives in Egypt who can give information from the field, the archaeological areas, the museums," said group founder Daniele Salvoldi, a Ph.D. candidate in Egyptology at the University of Pisa, through a brief exchange on Facebook. "So, as it is the most numerous group about the Egyptian unrest among Egyptologists, it became a sort of field of discussion about what is going on, and we are spreading awareness about the risks of the heritage."

Salvoldi, like others in the group, was motivated to stay on top of Egypt's archeological heritage during the revolution by his personal connection to Egyptian culture. "I am married to an Egyptian (Egyptologist). I started following the unrest very soon, even before the 25th of January," Salvoldi wrote. "When the protest became a clear uprising, or a revolution (as it aims to change the political system) I thought that we from abroad could sustain the cause of a change in Egypt. I mean, we use to work there, we know many Egyptians, we know the heritage of the country, we are perfectly aware of corruption and limited freedom. I thought we should not close our eyes in front of this, as we work there, we share something of their culture: we have to stand for the Egyptians. I have not a specific political aim: it is a matter of human rights constantly violated, torture, lack of freedom of speech, of demonstration, of press. This is not a matter of politics, it is a matter of principles."

Art vandalism has been a form of cultural warfare since the French Revolution, when protestors tore down icons representing the institutions of the Ancien Regime: the royalty, the nobility and the Church. In recent years, art destruction has been a form of cultural oppression, the most visible example being the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamyan statues by the Taliban government. Often, the perpetrators of art vandalism are unknown, elevating suspicions in already tense post-conflict areas. While the world has been free to wade into the vastness of the media pouring out of the embattled country, the group represents a valiant attempt to monitor potential causalities that may go unnoticed by the BBC or Al Jazeera.
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Jared Keller is a former associate editor for The Atlantic and The Atlantic Wire and has also written for Lapham's Quarterly's Deja Vu blog, National Journal's The Hotline, Boston's Weekly Dig, and Preservation magazine. 

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