Egyptian history goes digital, with mixed results

CAIRO, Egypt -- The two young men stood on a museum balcony overlooking colossal 3,000-year-old statues and mummy-shaped coffins, but their eyes were fixed on the glowing screens of the digital guides in their hands.

One of the men shook his head. "This is too confusing," he muttered, pulling off the attached earphones. The other stopped trying to find his position on a digital map and instead watched a lively tour guide on the floor below explain to her large group the significance of a statue of the pharaoh Ramses II.

This year, the 100-year-old Egyptian Museum took a leap into the modern era with the launch of digital tour guides. But while museum officials laud them as a necessary step forward, many tourists still might prefer the human option.

After all, can technology replace Hamdy Oraby, who teaches his guests basic hieroglyphics? Who jokes that one of the statues represents his great-great-grandfather? Who can answer pretty much any question about ancient Egypt?

160 of 170,000 exhibits

The digital guide, renting for about $3.30, uses IBM technology to provide information in Arabic, English and French on 160 of the most significant items among the 170,000 exhibits.

It offers nine tours ranging from 30 to 110 minutes, complete with maps to navigate through "Treasures of Tutankhamun," "Art of the Old and Middle Kingdoms" or "Egyptians at Play." The visitor can also choose the "Explore on Your Own" option and wander through the sprawling halls, entering an artifact's number into the guide to hear its history and importance.

The human guides, on the other hand, charge about $7 an hour -- always negotiable. There are about 60 of them, government-licensed and speaking a Babel of languages, including English, Italian, French, Japanese and Spanish.

They bring flashlights to highlight the exhibits, maps of ancient Egypt, photographs of themselves digging at the ancient sites, and referrals from previous tourists.

Oraby, 36, speaks English and Italian and has been a guide for seven years. Before that, he worked on many of the rich archaeological digs around Cairo.

After a 90-minute tour with him, Gracielo Lago of Uruguay said she usually preferred to tour museums with a guidebook but appreciated Oraby's insights into things she might overlook.

"He brings a human element to the museum," she said.

The digital guide does not even try for the human element. It speaks in a computerized monotone, its information loads slowly and its maps can be confusing.

Some of the explanations lead to informative links on history or related treasures in the museum, but others are so brief as to be pointless. The entry for the 11th Dynasty (2133-1991 B.C.) sarcophagus of Queen Kawit, for example, says merely: "The outer faces of this limestone sarcophagus are decorated with scenes from daily life."

Well, obviously. You only have to look at the glass-enclosed stone tomb to see carvings of the queen being dressed and eating breakfast, surrounded by servants, food and jewelry.

Fills a need

Mahmoud el-Halwagy, chief curator of the museum's Old Kingdom Department, acknowledged the digital guide could be improved, but said it fills a need.

"We have a lack of information here, not enough of a labeling system," he said. "Individuals who choose not to hire a tour guide go around the museum with no information. So this digital guide covers this lack."

Also, the museum offers no comprehensive guidebook of its own to its treasures.

Christina Mihalache, 22, from Romania, toured the museum for two hours on her own and found it confusing. "I felt a need for a guide, but I didn't notice the digital ones," she said. "Maybe if they'd advertised it, I would have rented one."

The tour guides waiting for customers on the museum grounds say that besides stealing some of their business, the digital guides are unhelpful.

"There is no communication between the tourist and the guide," said Ahmed Marei, 49, a museum guide for eight years. "We are not against technology, but at this museum it just doesn't work."

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