Written by Shreen Amin, Director of the Children’s Museum, Egyptian Museum, Cairo (Egypt, ITP Fellow 2016)

Documentation can provide a lasting record of cultural heritage; it allows for a better understanding of the lessons of past. In my research into How Are the Spanish Flu and COVID-19 Alike? and the action of museums of Egypt in the 1918 H1N1 “Spanish flu” pandemic, I found the history of the 1918 Flu in Egypt was only documented in the Egyptian Newspapers. I asked myself what if the staff of the Egyptian Museum in 1918 documented the pandemic and the measures that had been taken?

The Spanish flu, also known as the 1918 flu pandemic, was an unusually deadly influenza pandemic. Lasting from February 1918 to April 1920, it infected 500 million people – about a third of the world’s population at the time. Egypt was one of the countries that had been hit by the 1918 Flu pandemic, the first wave of the pandemic appeared in Egypt sometime in late spring – around May or June 1918. The third wave is mentioned very briefly in the press – in March 1919.

“Al-Anfilwinza al-Wafida.” Al-Muqattam, December 7, 1918, 2

Vital statistics – such as they are – seem to indicate that it was fairly mild. Al-Muqattam reported on December 6 1918 (the height of the second, and most lethal wave) that the Alexandria Municipality’s Sanitary Department had asked the Ministry of Awqaf to make sure mosques were properly ventilated during prayer services, and that the floors were being clean. Public celebrations of Mawlid an-Nabi, the Prophet’s birthday, were cancelled, as were permits for religious processions as well as funeral processions.

Al-Muqattam, 1918

Egyptian Museum from 1918 to April 1920, the period of the 1918 Flu

I have searched for photos of the Egyptian Museums in the period of the 1918 Flu and I have found very rare photos only focused on the display and collection, not behind the scenes. The first rare photo I have found is the photo of the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, Cairo, 1920. The photograph is from an album of 48 photographs compiled by Lieutenant James Roney Keogh Murphy, 9th Hodson’s Horse.

Interior of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo with the sculpture  of Pharoah Amenhotep III and Queen Tiye. Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, Cairo, 1920, National Army Museum, Study collection UK

I have found photos of Egypt and Egyptian Museum in the online digital collections from the Getty Research Institute dating back to 1918-1923 where the photos of the Egyptian Museum only focused on the display and collections not events behind the scenes.

I have found rare photos of Egypt and Egyptian Museum from 1918 to April 1920 in the Library of Congress. The photos of the Egyptian Museum again only focused on the display and Collections not on the measures that had been taken at that particle moment of the history in the museum. Some photos I have found in this library show the visitors of the Egyptian Museum in the early 20th century during the period of 1918 Flu and after. Again the photos only focused on the space, display, and collection, the photos did not document the measures of the museum or the actions of the visitors to follow the measures.

Today, we as museum professionals should document the measures of our museums are taken during the COVID-19 Crises, document every aspects linked with this crisis. The Spanish Flu and COVID-19 pandemics are alike, what if the museum professionals documented the measures taken in the 1918 Flu? What is they had documented how Egypt behaved in that past crisis? Lessons from the past help to prepare for the future.