Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs, Dick Spring, on reopening the Egypt Room at National Museum
Comments by the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs,
Mr. Dick Spring T.D.,
reopening the Egypt Room at the National Museum
15 January 1997
I am both glad and relieved to be with you for the opening of the Egypt room. Relieved, because Government Buildings is not an easy place to escape in the days prior to a budget and I had feared I would not make it. A colleague claims to have overheard two visitors in the entrance lobby of Leinster House, speculating on the significance of the division bell which was then ringing. "What does that bell mean?" asked one. "I don't know." said the other. "Maybe one of them has escaped."
I have escaped to be with you this evening but I remain puzzled as to why Pat Wallace invited me to do this. I am no Egyptologist. What I know about Dynastic Egypt could be rolled into a nutshell and still leave room for the nut. I do however know modern Egypt quite well. Egypt is a centre of gravity in the Mediterranean and the Middle East region today, as it has been for the past seven thousand years; it is a critical player in the Middle East peace process and in the economic life of the Mediterranean. Consequently I have found myself four times in Cairo in the space of eighteen months. Indeed, I have made more phone calls to Cairo in the past few days than to anywhere else except Tralee. I have made friends in Egypt and I have determined to return. Pre-occupied with the challenges facing Egypt today, I have had little time to become acquainted with the glories of its past. In some ways, therefore, I am unprepared for the job facing me this evening.
On one of my hurried visits, the Egyptian Foreign Minister, Amr Moussa arranged for me to
visit the Museum of Antiquities in Cairo. As usual time was pressing and my visit was cut to
twenty minutes. I was reminded afterwards of Woody Allen's comment about speed reading: "After my speed reading course I read War and Peace - it concerns Russia". Nonetheless, I count myself privileged to have had a glimpse of some of the treasures housed in Cairo. I have invited Amr Moussa to visit Ireland soon and I am hopeful that he will do so. It will give me great pleasure to reciprocate his hospitality and to bring him here.
Though not an expert, I do know that this collection has been locked away from public view for too long. As a part of our National Collection, it should be a part of our national life. Culture is porous; it absorbs inspiration through time and across national boundaries. Coptic Christianity had a profound influence on our own early church. Events in the Middle East can have profound influences - not always recognised - on us in the European Union. I like to think that we, too, were able to exercise some influence for the better on events in the Middle East during our Presidency.
Casting around the exhibits upstairs, I could see much to inspire us today. A former Taoiseach once expressed admiration for the ability of Chinese leaders to go on and on. I am sure he would marvel at how well Lady Tentinibu has lasted.
I could see, too, that leaders in Dynastic Egypt brought to a fine art the impenetrable facial expression which discloses nothing.. These men might have resisted the most skilled and probing of journalists. I will be advising Ruairi Quinn to study closely and adopt that inscrutable expression in the days leading up to the budget.
I myself have drawn inspiration from the severed figure of Sebekem Saf who greeted me at the entrance to the exhibition. His feet had remained in Dublin while his torso was on display in Vienna. Both parts are now happily reunited. I like to think that I kept my feet on the ground in Kerry during the six months of our Presidency, though I suspect that my torso is more travelled than Sebekem's. In any event, since the Dutch assumed the Presidency on 1 January, I have happily been reunited with myself and am now much the better for it.
I will admit that I scanned the exhibition anxiously for some evidence of an active beef market in Thebes or Alexandria. This should tell me that I have been perhaps too closely involved with one issue in recent days. The exhibition provides me with no firm reassurance on this score although the quality of our product does.
Egyptologists are a rare breed in Ireland. Very rare. In fact there are none. This exhibition could not have been mounted without the commitment and dedication of scholars overseas. Particular thanks are due to Professor Helmut Satzinger from the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna and to Dr Stephen Quirke and Dr John Taylor from the British Museum. The presence this evening of Ambassador Breisky and of representatives from the Egyptian and British Embassies bears witness to these important links. I also want to acknowledge the tireless efforts of Pat Wallace and his staff at the Museum, in particular of Mary Cahill who deserves great credit for getting the final case filled and shut in time for this opening. I know it was a race against time. You have unlocked a great asset and you deserve our thanks.
Finally, I must acknowledge the unique commitment which my colleague, Michael D Higgins, has shown to heritage matters. This is a challenging time for the Museum, a time a rapid progress and development. The reopening of the Egyptian collection will be followed later this year by the unveiling of new exhibitions in the Collins Barracks development, allowing the public access for the first time to important parts of the national collection. The Cultural Institutions Bill, passed by the Seanad last year and at present before the Dail, will give the Museum greater legal autonomy and establish it as a separate body with a Board to manage its own affairs.
Rapid change and development brings its own pressures and difficulties but I can see that the management and staff of the Museum have risen to that challenge. We will continue to be proud of the National Museum and look forward to the success of these key developments which will allow the Museum to establish its rightful place in the cultural life of Ireland.
Sam Goldwyn once said of one of his films "I don't care if it doesn't make a penny; I just want every man, woman and child in America to see it." Everyone should make an effort to see this exhibition, but don't all come at once. It's a small room.Top