Cultural confidence and historical pride shared in Hong Kong, Cairo

If you haven’t visited Hong Kong’s magnificent new Palace Museum, you’re missing out on a fabulous treasure trove of 900 artifacts on generous, permanent loan from Beijing’s own Palace Museum. They epitomize the court life of several dynasties and represent some of the great cultural achievements of Chinese civilization.

If you’re in Cairo and don’t visit its new National Museum of Egyptian Civilization, you’re denying yourself a grand spectacle of Egypt’s cultural and historical development from the earliest times through the ages. The new $1 billion, 5.3-million-square-foot building exhibits more than 500,000 artifacts from different eras.

Of course, both new museums will draw many international tourists. What is more striking is that both are attracting strong, enthusiastic support from local residents. Some of the first visitors to the new Hong Kong Palace Museum appeared in traditional Chinese clothes. In Cairo, local artisans and groups of schoolchildren are visiting the displays of Egyptian crafts through the ages.

It’s a curious and significant fact that the world’s two most ancient civilizations are both now confidently showcasing their cultural heritage and celebrating their national history. In both Cairo and Hong Kong, proud local residents are thronging to see how their ancestors lived and worked.

This is happening when, in some Western countries, national cultures and histories have become a matter of increasing political contention. Famous people once celebrated as national heroes are now sometimes cast as villains, and their life work condemned.

The Washington Post recently printed an opinion piece calling for renaming George Washington University: Even the name of America’s founding president is seen by some as symbolic of a shameful past. In 2020, on the anniversary of D-Day, the statue of Winston Churchill, Britain’s wartime leader, was vandalized by an angry crowd.

Many Americans now believe their nation must publicly atone for the evils of its past. In France and Britain, pride in imperial history has given way to shame over colonial exploitation.

It has to be said, also, that until recently, both China and Egypt either derided or denied their own historical cultures. The “cultural revolution” (1966-76) saw the destruction of Chinese historical artifacts and the ransacking of cultural sites. For decades, too, Egypt showcased the Pharaonic past and neglected its more recent, equally brilliant Islamic heritage.

Museums once depended on tourists and antiquarian visitors. Today, in both China and Egypt, the general public is taking pride in the historical achievements and queuing to see museum exhibitions.

Beijing’s Palace Museum, the world’s most visited, is a strikingly popular venue for the Chinese public: Visitor pressure forced a limitation to 80,000 visits a day. Similarly, the 2021 procession that moved 22 royal mummies to the new National Museum elicited an outpouring on social media of expressions of national pride.

It’s a remarkable fact that the Forbidden City, once regarded as a relic of a disdained feudal past, is now central to Chinese cultural identity. Who among the Red Guards of the 1960s and 1970s would have imagined that it would become a great national icon?

Hong Kong’s new Palace Museum expresses homage to China’s cultural past. The $450 million, 30,000-square-foot building reflects the architecture of the Forbidden City in the configuration of its atriums, and its wavelike ceilings clearly echo the famous tiles of the old building. Hong Kong, too, has learned from Beijing that young people are hungry for a connection with the Chinese past. The new museum’s multimedia displays bring history to life, and its 400-seat auditorium is a venue for cultural documentaries.

It’s equally notable that Cairo’s National Museum gives new recognition to Egypt’s achievements under Muslim rule. Who among the Egyptologists of the last century would have expected to see a splendid museum showcasing many cultural products of Arab civilization? Or, even more shocking to scholars and antiquarians, displays of Bedouin jewelry?

It’s true that world tourist organizations are highlighting Egypt’s National Museum as the new home of the mummies of King Ramses II and Queen Hatshepsut as well as many other fascinating archaeological remains from ancient Egypt. But the museum’s attention to Arab and Coptic antiquities is drawing the enthusiasm of the Egyptian public. Its location in Cairo’s Al-Fustat neighborhood — Fustat was the first capital of Arab Egypt — reflects the fact that Egypt is a great center of Muslim culture. Its neighbors include great Islamic mosques, famous Coptic churches, and the Ben Ezra Temple.

Like its Hong Kong equivalent, the National Museum makes use of QR codes for exhibits and virtual reality displays and it has created special facilities for schoolchildren. The first of its galleries to be opened was organized around traditional crafts, many of which are still practiced in today’s Egypt. Workshops are held for people interested in learning traditional embroidery techniques as practiced by Bedouin in Sinai.

International tourists will visit Hong Kong and Cairo’s new museums to marvel at the relics of civilizations very different from their own. Chinese and Egyptian residents, however, come to the museums to see and celebrate their national cultural heritage. Confident that they are the modern successors to great civilizations, they are proud of their history and the work of their ancestors.

The author is consul general of Egypt in Hong Kong.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.