Interview with Boutros Helmi
Interview with Mr. Boutros Helmi,
by Stéphane Alaux, VIP DIGITAL BODYGUARD, CEO of Online Réputation Net’Wash
Born in Paris on 17 March 1975, Boutros Helmi is a renowned museum curator. But not only that… Father of two children, this great art lover has made Egyptology and Ancient Greece his speciality. It is therefore quite natural that he became passionate about travel, and visited the four corners of the world and especially the land of the Pharaohs, Egypt. Helmi Boutros has graciously accepted to answer our questions. Discover his fascinating interview…
Can you introduce yourself for readers who may not know you?
Helmi Boutros: Of course. My name is Boutros Helmi, born in Paris on 17 March 1975. I am a museum curator, very passionate about Egyptology and Ancient Greece, two civilisations that I spend a lot of time studying. During my travels, which I am also passionate about, I have had the opportunity to visit all of Europe and also Egypt. Each time, I am marked by my visits in the land of the Pharaohs. It is true that this historical period fascinates me. On a more personal level, I am the father of two children, so I take this opportunity to say hello to them.
Let’s start with your career, how did you become a museum curator?
Helmi Boutros: Actually, from a very young age and as far back as I can remember, I was very interested in the world of art and exhibitions. I loved this world so much that, at a very young age, I decided to make it my profession. I fell in love with museums. I’ll tell you a secret: I’m still fascinated by these fabulous places, even though I visit them every day. So after graduating from the Lycée Général Claude Monet in Paris with a bachelor’s degree in literature, I decided to study for a degree in order to become a museum curator. I had to move to Lyon to join the Ecole Internationale des Métiers de la Culture et de la Communication (IESA). I have exceptional memories of it.
Can you tell us a little more about your background at IESA and why you chose this school?
Helmi Boutros: For me, the choice was quickly made. After finding out about IESA, I knew that it was a private higher education institution, recognised by the Ministry of Culture and Communication, which trains students specifically for the art and culture market. I didn’t need much more to convince me that IESA was the best option for me. So I joined the school and got my title of expert in the marketing and distribution of works of art, which is a diploma with a 5-year degree.
What did you do after graduating from IESA?
Helmi Boutros: Immediately after graduating, I had the great pleasure of being recruited by the Musée des Tissus et des Arts Décoratifs in Lyon. It was an extraordinary institution where I learned a lot, especially by organising several exhibitions as curator of the museum. The years I spent at the Musée des Tissus et des Arts Décoratifs de Lyon were extremely enriching, both on a professional and personal level. So it was with a twinge of regret that I packed up my bags, after several years of loyal service, to return to my native city: Paris. I had missed Paris a lot and I couldn’t imagine living far from the city of light. So I returned to Paris where I had the chance to work for several years at the Cité des sciences et de l’industrie, one of the best science museums in the city. After working at the science museum, I had the privilege of being recruited as curator of the very prestigious National Museum of Natural History. I can tell you that I was especially proud of that. Very soon I was involved in the reorganisation of several temporary exhibitions on various themes. I have very good memories of this very enriching experience. And now I am a curator at the Musée de l’Homme. There you have it all!
Very well, thank you. Many French people don’t know what exactly a museum curator’s job is. Can you introduce us to the job?
Helmi Boutros: It is true that the profession is not well known among the general public. But what if I said “curator”? I think that this term is better known than “curator”, although it is in fact the same job. A museum curator is a curator, whose core job is to manage the art collections, but also to organise exhibitions either for the museum, or for an art gallery or a foundation. On a day-to-day basis, a curator will be responsible for acquiring works of art for the museum. He or she will also be in charge of collecting and cataloguing the various works of art. And, very importantly, he or she will be responsible for the general maintenance of the works of art under his or her responsibility. But it doesn’t stop there. As an art expert, the curator is also involved in research by writing articles and preparing / speaking at thematic conferences.
In addition, it is the curator’s responsibility to organise the exhibitions. This includes installing the works and objects, but also negotiating loans of other works from external institutions. The curator’s role extends to the small details such as the writing of labels, interpretation material, information panels…
You may not know it, but curator is said to be the youngest profession in the world. It is important to know that the profession appeared, as we know it today, less than 50 years ago. This has not prevented it from becoming an essential link in the contemporary art world. Obviously, it is not the youngest profession in the world in absolute terms, that is an exaggeration, but it is certainly one of the most recent. Historically, it was the Swiss Harald Szeemann who invented the profession in the 1960s. It was the English who gave it the name of “curator”, which is French for “one who takes care” in Latin.
How does one become a museum curator? In other words, what are the qualities required for this position?
Helmi Boutros: Naturally, the first skill of a curator or a curatorial assistant is to have a good knowledge of art in general, coupled with a thorough expertise in art history. As you know, there are different variants, or specialities, in art. That is why the curator needs to show a deep expertise in a particular subject. For example, if the curator is to work in a museum specialising in modern art, he or she must have a thorough understanding of this discipline. But beyond the technical aspects, the curator must have other managerial and human qualities. He or she must be easy to talk to, and be able to maintain privileged relations with the museum’s various partners (institutions, artists, collectors, etc.). And as they are often required to organise exhibitions, curators must have proven skills in event organisation.
Sometimes, and it must be said that this is quite rare, the curator has to work on marketing projects aimed at promoting the events organised by the institution in which he or she works. Ideally, therefore, they should have some knowledge of marketing. Furthermore, it is the curator’s responsibility to make successive choices in terms of mediation and scenography. Let’s take the example of an artist who has made ten or fifteen works, whatever the number. The question then arises as to whether it would be wise to exhibit all of them, to exhibit only one, or to commission a work especially for the event? The choice is not a simple one, as it must take into account several factors related to the artists, the works and the exhibition space. All of this is to say that the curator must be able to manage relationships and hold a central position at the heart of the organisation.
Beyond the art world, the curatorial profession also exists today in the world of the web and communication, which presupposes other skills and qualities in addition to those I have just mentioned.
We feel you are passionate about your job. Do you have other passions besides your profession?
Helmi Boutros: It’s true that I find the curatorial profession fascinating and enriching on many levels. I’ve been doing it for years and I learn new things every day, it’s wonderful. There is no doubt that my job is my number one passion. But I am also a great enthusiast of Egyptology…
Tell us about your passion for Egyptology…
Helmi Boutros: It started during my childhood. My father, a man of great culture, liked to watch documentaries on all subjects. I remember that as a child, I was with him one day in front of the TV. We were watching a documentary on the mysteries of the construction of the pyramids. It was a scientific programme, far from the sensationalist documentaries that tended to attribute the construction of the pyramids to aliens and other myths and legends. I was 15 years old at the time, and I was impressed by these extraordinary works. I was obsessed with the subject, I was desperate to unravel the mystery of the construction of the pyramids. I had developed some theories, which I kept to myself of course. I was so fascinated by the Pharaonic civilisation that I would spend days in libraries devouring everything I could get my hands on on the subject. I was looking for answers to questions that left me perplexed. How did the people of the time live, how were they organised politically, what about their religion… I have been interested in this subject for 30 years.
In all modesty, my research has allowed me to have a certain expertise as an Egyptologist, which I have been able to improve upon during my visits to Egypt. I do not intend to stop there. On the contrary, my wish is to contribute to international research and archaeological excavation efforts to uncover more mysteries of this prestigious civilization. The idea of writing books summarising my research is also on my mind.
One can say that you are an expert in Egyptology, after all you have been studying it for 30 years…
Helmi Boutros: I wouldn’t go that far. You know, Egyptology is an extremely vast subject where much remains to be discovered and many researchers are interested in it. But it is true that I have travelled a lot in Egypt in search of satisfactory answers, and I have had the pleasure of discovering in detail several fascinating sites, notably the pyramid of Cheops in Giza. I’ll tell you a secret: the first time I found myself in front of this pyramid, I was totally amazed by the disproportionate dimensions of the construction. And what a surprise it was when I learned that it was built in less than 20 years!
Now I plan to travel to Egypt to be close to the recent discoveries in Saqqara and the Valley of the Dead. What Egyptian archaeologists have been able to accomplish in 2020 is amazing, especially in the complicated health context we are facing. There is even a documentary coming out at the end of October on Netflix that discusses their achievements and the importance of the discoveries they have made in recent months. Being able to be even remotely involved in such feats motivates me in ways you can’t imagine. I can’t wait to go.
Can you tell us a little about the history of ancient Egypt, perhaps this will give rise to some vocations.
Helmi Boutros It is somewhat difficult to summarise the history of such an important founding period of our civilisation, but this is what I can say. Ancient Egypt was one of the greatest and most powerful civilisations in the history of the world. It lasted for over 3000 years, from 3150 BC to 30 BC.
You only have to see the splendour of the pyramids of Giza to understand how vast and glorious the history of ancient Egypt is. It would be very pretentious to say that we can write about it in one book, or two, or even ten. For my part, I have been interested in this civilisation for 30 years and I can tell you that up to now I have discovered things that I did not know before.
The Nile River
The ancient Egyptian civilisation was located along the Nile River in northeast Africa. The river was the source of much of ancient Egypt’s wealth. Great Egyptian cities developed along the Nile as the Egyptian people became experts in irrigation and were able to use the river’s water to grow rich and profitable crops. The river provided the Egyptians with food, land, water and transportation. Large floods occurred every year and provided fertile soil for growing food.
Kingdoms and periods
Historians generally group the history of ancient Egypt into three major kingdoms called the Old, Middle and New Kingdoms. It was during this period that Ancient Egypt was strongest. The periods between the kingdoms are called the intermediate periods.
The Old Kingdom, beginning in the 3rd millennium BCE, is considered the first great period of prosperity and political stability in Egypt. The Old Kingdom pharaohs, who had an efficient system of administrators, commissioned a number of large-scale irrigation projects that contributed to the economic prosperity of the empire. They also created a bureaucracy to collect taxes and administer a sophisticated judicial system, and they built a number of pyramids and other large-scale buildings. The Old Kingdom ended around 2,200 BC after a series of droughts and political conflicts that led to the collapse of the Egyptian government.
After nearly two centuries of political stagnation and economic instability, known as the First Intermediate Period, the Egyptian Middle Kingdom marked another period of great prosperity. From 2030 BC, the Eleventh Dynasty pharaohs, after a series of successful military campaigns to secure their power, promoted irrigation projects around the Nile that created great economic prosperity. Alongside this prosperity and greater distribution of wealth, high-ranking Egyptians outside the immediate family of the pharaoh demanded access to the afterlife. As a result, a number of Egyptian nobles and priests were mummified and buried during this period. The Middle Kingdom came to an end around 1650 BC after a series of crop failures weakened the power of the pharaoh.
The second intermediate period, marked by a series of weak and foreign rulers, was followed by the New Kingdom of Egypt. The New Kingdom pharaohs ushered in a period of prosperity by fostering diplomatic alliances with their neighbours. The New Kingdom ended after a series of military defeats and internal unrest that weakened the power of the pharaoh, replaced by the growing power of the priesthood.
Ancient Egypt was rich in culture, including government, religion, art and writing. Government and religion were linked as the head of government, the Pharaoh, was also the head of religion. Writing was also important for the functioning of the government. Only scribes could read and write and they were considered powerful people.
The Egyptians were also known at that time to be good doctors and soldiers. Hieroglyphics found in several burial tombs show that the pharaohs had already developed their own medicine based on plants they cultivated. They were also fierce warriors, who were able to repel the invasions of many enemies.
Pyramids and treasure
The pharaohs of Egypt were often buried in giant pyramids or in secret tombs. They believed that they needed treasure to bury with them to help them in the afterlife. Therefore, archaeologists have many well-preserved objects and tombs to examine to find out how the ancient Egyptians lived.
Moreover, as you may have noticed recently, archaeologists continue to discover sanctuaries dating back more than 2,500 years, especially in the Saqqara region. Excavations in recent months have uncovered tombs that are still intact! This is precisely what fascinates me. The feeling of being one of the first people to be in contact with such valuable monuments is something I have always dreamed of experiencing. Moreover, I intend to go beyond the simple status of researcher or connoisseur and to contribute as much as possible to the next discoveries in the Saqqara region or the Valley of the Dead.
The end of the Empire
The ancient Egyptian Empire began to weaken around 700 BC and was conquered by a number of other civilisations. The first to conquer Egypt was the Assyrian Empire, followed a hundred years later by the Persian Empire. In 332 BC, Alexander the Great of Greece conquered Egypt and created his own ruling family called the Ptolemaic Dynasty. Finally, the Romans arrived in 30 BC and Egypt became a province of Rome.
Nevertheless, all these past civilizations could not make us forget the glorious era of the Pharaohs. The monuments left by the different dynasties that ruled during this period show how glorious this civilisation was. As I mentioned in my answer to the previous question, pharaonic remains and tombs continue to be found to this day that accurately illustrate the way of life at the time. Of course, no discovery has yet been able to match Howard Carter’s discovery of Tutankhamen, but Egypt has many more surprises in store for enthusiasts like me.
Thank you Mr. Helmi Boutros.
Q & A
Question: Is Boutros Helmi an expert in the field of Egyptology?
What is Helmi Boutros’ job?
Did Boutros Helmi ever visit Egypt or Greece?
Yes, being a culture addict, Boutros Helmi devoted his travels to getting as close as possible to the remains of these two worlds that he dreams of.
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