Manufacturing Cultural Value: Moving Cleopatra’s Needles from Artifact to Asset

Monuments are pawns on the chessboard of the earth which are claimed as global patrimony. The diplomatic apparatus which arose from discourse on international conservation operates both on behalf of and through these monuments.

One particular monument is the obelisk—an ancient Egyptian artifact, marking a temple’s entry. Obelisks have become the symbols of empires. These artifacts have undergone a constant manufacturing of meaning, making them objects of our supposed shared heritage, or global patrimony. Global patrimony is the belief that certain artifacts belong to all of humankind, and these objects are the targets of many conservation efforts by intergovernmental institutions such as UNESCO.  Global patrimony defines both the technical apparatus which arose around such objects, but also the event of the circulation of these objects.

One particularly remarkable instance of the global circulation is the movement of three obelisks incorrectly referred to as Cleopatra’s Needles. The three monoliths crossed thousands of miles by sea to reach Paris, London, and New York, respectively, where they serve as symbols of financial ties to a burgeoning modern Egypt and as declarations of these cities part of a modern empire.

From their conception, these monuments have been designed to move. All mined in quarries in the south of Egypt, they were transferred to Luxor, Heliopolis, Alexandria, and finally, their present locations as power shifted in Egypt.

As they moved, the expertise which defined them as objects of global patrimony developed in parallel. This expertise, called Egyptology, is rooted in an early 19th century publication called the Description de l'Égypte. This fourteen volume document was a product of Napoleon’s conquest and has formed the basis of our knowledge of ancient Egypt, keeping our conceptions about the near East at a standstill. While Egyptology developed in tandem with the obelisks’ movement, fields of conservation and preservation are ever evolving. This is evident in recent conservation efforts of Cleopatra’s Needle in New York in 2014, where laser particle scanning, damage heat mapping, and a paraffin wax coating were used to protect the Needle from pollution.

If we are to understand cultural value as something that accumulates over time, contingent upon the circulation and development of technical and disciplinary expertise, how do we refresh cultural value for these ancient artifacts today?

In addition to the three “Cleopatra’s Needles,” fifteen additional obelisks have been removed from Egypt, as gifts or thefts. Their combined travels is equivalent to almost twice the diameter of the earth,  and they have been moved as recently as the 1970s. Each obelisk is a record inscribed with who did what, and when—their histories are unique. To confer new cultural value onto these objects, they must be repatriated and placed in a new institution, a signifying system that conveys meaning through a new arrangement of these objects in space. 

The obelisks will sit in a live archaeological site in the Ain Shams neighborhood of Cairo, the location of the ancient city of the sun, Heliopolis. They will be buried below grade, with the earth sculpted to expose the body of each monument. Instead of presenting each obelisk with traditional museum labels, a scaffolding that allows viewers to ascend along its height affords new readings and experiences of history for these monoliths, all while providing visual noise that disrupts the classical unperturbed view of such monuments. No longer are these obelisks bound by the constraints of city planning, nor are they symbols of past gifts and economic ties between a privileged West and an Orient to be rescued. The roof of the building, in the form of a grid, is suspended over the shaped terrain that makes up the museum, akin to a site grid delineated over an archaeological dig. As the sun glares over the site, the roof’s form casts lines over the uneven ground, which has been sculpted to allow the top of each obelisk to meet the same datum. By elevating each obelisk to reach the same level, they are treated as equals. The scaffolding surrounding each obelisk is connected by elevated walkways allowing visitors to navigate the archaeological site ground along prescribed circuits, like by way of a large ramp, while maintaining flexible circulation by smaller pathways. 

The institution follows the ethos of archaeological discourse: rigor is essential. Excavation—and by extension, extraction—is destruction, and only justified if the utmost care is taken. This project allows us to speculate on whom these artifacts belong to, and who they benefit.