The American Research Center in Eygpt

From San Antonio to St. Antony's

From San Antonio to St. Antony's

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From San Antonio to St. Antony's
Picture an austere desertscape of dry valleys and
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Museum at St. Antony's Coptic Monastery. Photo: Michael Jones

mountains. Nestled against this backdrop stands a monastery complex surrounded by high adobe walls with churches and chapels, a bakery, a spring, and a lush garden where olive and date trees are cultivated by monks under the unrelenting sun of Egypt's Eastern Desert.

As the ARCE archivist and Assistant Director for U.S. Operations the core of my work is administrative. Yet, one of the benefits of working at ARCE has been the opportunity to support ARCE projects with the skills I gained as a registrar and head of collections at the San Antonio Museum of Art in the 1990s and early 2000s.

The first opportunity to use my museum background came with the ARCE-USAID funded Egyptian Museum Registrar Training Project. Over a three-year period, I assisted with training the group of registrars in the frenetic atmosphere of the Museum surrounded by the hustle and bustle of Cairo. In offering my knowledge of museum registrar practices, I also gained invaluable knowledge of working in another culture and learning to be flexible within various parameters. 

The second opportunity arose in the guise of The Coptic Orthodox Monastery of St. Antony the Great.  St. Antony’s has continually occupied this site since the 4th century. Its long, rich history has attracted the attention of prominent scholars and historians over the centuries and the monastery itself has seen numerous construction and restoration projects through the ages.  As a result, the monastery possesses archaeological material to complement its collection of liturgical objects and objects used in the daily lives of the monks.

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Sampling of the museum's chalices, liturgical spons, and chandeliers. Photo: Jane Smythe

Some one thousand such objects include chalices, patens, liturgical spoons, kitchenware, farming and fishing implements, bookmaking material, and icons dated between the late 17th to 20th centuries; also included are 19th century vestments belonging to Coptic Pope Kyrillos IV of Alexandria. 

Bags packed for a week as the only female guest in this remote Coptic monastery, off I went in November 2011 with ARCE’s Information Technolog  Project Manager, Zakaria Yacoub. After a three hour drive that took us away from the urban chaos of Cairo along a high speed road to the Red Sea where we wove our way along the coast with the mountains to the west and sparkling blue sea to the east, we finally made our way into Egypt’s interior, sparse Eastern desert and St. Antony’s.  Father Maximous el-Antony, an energetic monk with an engaging personality, expressive eyes, and a reputation as an excellent chef, greeted us. Moments later we sat down to a lovely lunch and without further ado, the work began.

Father Maximous studied museology in the United States
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Museum gallery space. Photo: Jane Smythe

in the 1990s and is the driving force behind the monastery’s conservation projects. Conservation and preservation work began at St. Antony’s under ARCE’s first USAID grant, the Egyptian Antiquities Project (EAP) to conserve the medieval wall paintings in the monastery. In addition to the conservation of paintings at the monastery, the ten-plus years of conservation work at St. Antony’s also included the preservation and presentation of early monastic cells visible under the floor of the sanctuary. Further USAID funding for St. Antony’s is included in the Egyptian Antiquities Conservation (EAC) Project, which provides for the installation of a museum gallery that was constructed by the monastery. In addition to the museum gallery there is a workshop and laboratory situated above the gallery space. 

My first task was to review the catalog inventory sheets created several years earlier by a group of students volunteering at the monastery museum in order to familiarize myself with the types of objects in the collection that would be entered into the museum database. Meanwhile Zakaria, who had previously created a database with basic entry fields for the objects using Filemaker, tweaked the program and with recommendations from Father Maximous, further improved data fields and linked the data. Zakaria and I sat side by side in the workshop for eight hours a day working methodically. By week’s end almost 800 records had been entered into the system. Leaving the work-filled days and the clear star-studded night skies behind, I returned to Cairo and San Antonio.

In June 2012, I returned to Cairo where I spent several
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L-R: Fr. Maximous, Rachel Mauldin, and Gerry Scott view the vestments stored in the museum workshop. Photo: Jane Smythe

days in the ARCE office linking images of the objects to their corresponding record in the database. Then just days before the draining summer heat set in, Gerry Scott, ARCE Director, and Michael Jones, Associate Director of EAC, and I traveled to the Monastery where we spent three days working with Father Maximous and the museum collection.  Gerry and I assessed the collection, familiarized ourselves with the various objects, and made initial selections of object groups for installation while Michael and Father Maximous began developing the story line for the exhibit. Group discussions focused on developing a sequence of events for the installation, creative ways to display more of the objects in other areas of the monastery to show their context, and considerations for incorporating examples of the archaeological material in the installation.

Back in San Antonio, where summer is no less punishing than in Egypt, I continue to update the database remotely with additional information obtained during my visit in June. The database contains all basic object information – title, date, medium, dimensions, condition, and a description along with a reference photo. This information will be used in determining which objects will be selected for installation and to develop object labels, as well as a reference for text panels used to tell the story of the Monastery. Future trips to St. Antony’s will entail completing the database entry, designing the installation, and then installing the objects, labels, and text panels. Museum installations are a group effort, and I appreciate the opportunity to play a role once again in the museum setting; I’m looking forward to the creativity, dilemmas, and physical demands of the exhibit and installation. The Museum at St. Antony’s Monastery is scheduled to be complete by December 2013.

Rachel Mauldin is the Assistant Director for US Operations, ARCE, San Antonio, TX.

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