Cairo, Egypt For decades now, Cairo's famed Egyptian Museum has needed redefining and modernizing. Those who run it say the revolution has begun.
"It's like "Mission Impossible,"' said Zahi Hawass, who celebrated the museum's 100th anniversary with a speech Monday outlining plans to overhaul the cramped museum at the bustling heart of Cairo.
The world famous Egyptologist said it would take another year to complete the overhaul and expansion being overseen by his Supreme Council of Antiquities, a government agency.
Designed to exhibit about 5,000 artifacts, the downtown museum has 160,000, with only a third on display, including the treasures of the boy king Tutankhamun, who ruled Egypt 3,300 years ago.
Many pharaonic, Coptic, Greco-Roman and Islamic treasures had to be stored in the basement, half of which was converted to a new exhibition gallery that was to open Wednesday.
Hawass and other officials said the new gallery would feature 250 artifacts that had never been on public display, including a 4,300-year-old granite statue of an Egyptian scribe.
The facelift also includes the construction of an annex with a new gift shop and a conference hall, the transfer to two new museums of a third of the artifacts on display to ease crowding and the establishment of an Egyptology workshop for children.
An Italian museum designer was hired to help reorganize exhibits in the main building, which also was to get better lighting and air conditioning.
Museum curators from Egypt, Europe and North America gathered Monday for a conference to kick off the museum's centennial celebrations, getting a firsthand glimpse at the work that still needs to be done.
White marble floor tiles showed signs of wear. Fluorescent lights barely illuminated the contents of some display cases and some of the paper labels describing artifacts were yellow with age.
Workers preparing for Wednesday's gallery opening unloaded containers and made their way through the crowd of conference participants as the opening session was held in a huge red tent behind the museum.
Museum director Mamdouh el-Damaty said renovations carried out to mark the centenary included the improvement of lighting and displays in selected areas.
Security was tight, with scores of policemen, both uniformed and in plainclothes, on patrol as they have been since a series of attacks by Muslim militants on foreign tourists in Egypt, including one outside the museum in 1997.
The renovation comes as the museum, which officially opened Nov. 15, 1902, prepares to lose its place as Egypt's main museum.
Hawass said the future of the neoclassical building, which received a fresh coat of deep rose paint as part of the refurbishment program, was linked to a much larger, $350 million museum to be built near the Pyramids west of Cairo and another to open in a Cairo neighborhood dating to the Middle Ages.
The older museum will retain artifacts from the pre-pharaonic age to modern times, while the two new museums, expected to open within the next five years, will house many of the existing museum's artifacts, including those of Tutankhamun.
Hawass said the downtown museum's importance won't be diminished, just redefined.
"The Cairo museum has become part of our history and heritage," Hawass said. "For me, the moment I enter the Cairo museum I smell history."