A Jerusalem breath of fresh air

A permanent exhibit on interaction among scientific fields has joined the Hebrew University Givat Ram campus’s outdoor displays of nature.

November 5, 2016 23:23
PROF. JEFF CAMI (Kimchi) speaking at the opening of the exhibit.

PROF. JEFF CAMI (Kimchi) speaking at the opening of the exhibit.. (photo credit: JUDY SIEGEL-ITZKOVICH)

There is a hidden crown of jewels set in the Givat Ram campus of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem of which many students – let alone the general public – are unaware.

The latest precious stone to be added is an innovative new permanent museum exhibit titled Bridging the Sciences: Broadening Horizons at the long-empty foyer of Canada Hall on the Edmund Safra Campus in Givat Ram.

The outdoor exhibits of the campus’s Nature Park and Galleries (www.npg.org.il) are also still unknown to many Jerusalemites and certainly to those living outside the capital.

Additional free offerings of Givat Ram’s Open Campus Museum include the Ecology Boardwalk through the campus forest, the Bird Migration Trail, the Plant Evolution Garden and the Campus Discovery Tree Walk.

A five-minute walk through the evolution garden covers half a billion years. One small tree on the site, for example, is a cycad, one of the earliest groups of plants that produce seeds – one of the most significant of all evolutionary innovations. You can hold a cycad seed and put yourself in contact with a plant innovation older than the age of the dinosaurs.

All Open Campus Museum exhibits are self-guided, with attractive and informative signs that make it possible to stroll through the green campus whenever you wish any day of the week until 8 p.m.

THE MAN behind the museum exhibits is 75-year-old HU emeritus zoology Prof. Jeffrey Camhi (Kimchi in Hebrew), who in his 50s dreamed up the idea of building a natural history museum (to replace the old and small natural history museum in the city’s German Colony). It was supposed to have been built next to the highly successful Bloomfield Science Museum that opened in 1992 across from the Givat Ram campus.

The mayor of Jerusalem at the time was Ehud Olmert.

“The idea of developing the prototype natural history museum at the university ignited sparks from City Hall,” Camhi recalled to The Jerusalem Post at the recent opening of the museum.

“The politics became thick as molasses and our prototype project got stuck in the debate. Yet out of this stickiness grew a new, and in some ways more interesting (to me) idea, the idea that was to become the Nature Park and Galleries (NPG). Since 2001, Camhi – who retired as professor at the age of 68 – has been director of NPG’s Open Campus Museum.

Although as a university professor he wrote numerous articles in academic journals on the neuroethology of invertebrates, specifically, the role of single nerve cells and nerve circuits in initiating and controlling insect behavior, his two books for laymen have reached a wider audience. They are Fifty Tree Tales (together with Prof. Michael Avishai) on the magnificent deciduous species included in the Campus Discovery Tree Walk published in 2007 and six years later A Dam in the River: Releasing the Flow of University Ideas.

The first, a full-color, glossy volume on the Discovery Tree Walk, is available at the campus bookstore, along with a smartphone audio guide to help lead the visitor through the tree species.

“NPG makes a great outing for the whole family, school groups or anyone wishing to soak up the lovely, peaceful academic atmosphere, encounter many treasures of this great university, and discover the stories behind them,” said Camhi.

The Safra campus was launched in the 1950s when the original HU campus on Mount Scopus was inaccessible to students after the War of Independence in 1948.

CAMHI RECALLED: “Walking to work one day in 2000, passing a large open space just outside the university campus, I wondered why that space was still vacant. It had long been considered as the site of a new natural history museum for the city of Jerusalem.”

He visited his friend and colleague, the late Prof. Eitan Tchernov, who was then head of the university’s ecology, systematics and evolution department, which at that time was responsible for the nearly five million specimens of Israel’s natural history collections and home to their research faculty and curatorial staff.

“I had known about the prior efforts of faculty in that department to establish the new natural history museum. ‘So where is it?’ I brashly asked Eitan.” Tchernov replied, ‘We’re waiting for the mishuga [crazy person] who will build it.”

“‘Hmm,’” I thought. A quite outlandish ‘hmm,’ since my area of specialty was brain mechanisms of animal behavior, a subject not directly connected to natural history.

Moreover, I had no training or experience in museum work. But I was still in my late 50s and wondering if this might be an exciting new direction in which to embark. The chief university administrators encouraged me to develop a prototype museum of natural history on the campus – a first stage toward the full museum. They made clear, though, that no funds would come from university sources. Rather, I could raise funds myself, though in coordination with the university’s public relations office.”

Although he had written many grant applications to foundations for supporting his academic research, he had never been involved in fund-raising for a university project. A network of friends and supporters began to develop – people whose donations were helpful to his efforts over the years.

Meanwhile, he had been attending international conferences on museology, meeting leaders of natural history and other museums around the world and reading everything in sight on the subject, mostly about the public functions – not the collections and research – of museums.

“Meanwhile, I was appointed administrative head of the university’s natural history collections, providing an opportunity to learn a good deal about the curatorial and research side of museums. I also began reading about organizational administration, particularly of museums, which requires a very different style of human relations than running a research laboratory or teaching courses – my two main activities up until then.”

He thus found himself simultaneously on several steep learning curves.

“So when Prof. Daniel Zohary, noted university plant geneticist, explained to me the richness of the collection of campus trees and suggested that I develop a campus tree walk, I was able to reply with some confidence. Moreover, I began looking closely around the campus and discovered, often with the aid of various experts, a great many objects both outdoors and indoors that hold scientific, historic, artistic, or other forms of significance.

I began collecting the stories behind these objects, and realizing that they, as well as the university’s main activities, research and teaching, could hold great interest for the general public.”

From this, he said, “sprang the idea that this campus (and no doubt many other university campuses) already is a museum, or almost. All that was needed to develop an open-campus museum was to create a means of interpreting for the public the rich array of campus objects and activities and inviting the public in for the experience.”

Each year, the NPG also offers several on-campus free musical concerts – from classical to jazz – performed by students and faculty members at Beit Belgia.

As colleagues in universities overseas began hearing about how the Safra campus was becoming a museum venue for public education, he began receiving inquiries.

“I became interested in how American universities, in particular, share their ideas with the public, and how our NPG model might be useful to them.” This developed into a five-year research project, culminating in the publication of his 2013 book, A Dam in the River: Releasing the Flow of University Idea.

The new permanent exhibit at Canada Hall “stretches the mind,” said Camhi.

“Can a biologist and a physicist understand one another? A geologist and a mathematician? As this exhibit reveals, most scientists think, do, and talk science in similar ways, encouraging their mutual understanding and cooperation. But scientists in different field also think, do, and talk science in somewhat different ways, challenging cooperative research.”

Encouraged by their similarities yet challenged by their differences, some scientists on the Safra campus who are featured in this exhibit engage successfully in groundbreaking interdisciplinary research. While the museum was primarily aimed at first- and second-year science students on campus to appreciate the interdisciplinary nature of science, it can also be appreciated by outsiders aged “12 to 120,” he continued.

“One goal of the exhibit is to encourage students, already from the beginning of their scientific careers, to look not only straight ahead, but also sideways, to a range of different scientific fields and approaches,” explained Camhi.

“In this regard, the exhibit has the potential to impact on the future of Israeli science.

The exhibit explains the fundamental nature of scientific thought and action in a light, and often amusing and interactive manner suited to all segments of the Israeli population and visitors from abroad.”

He added at the opening that “this is NPG’s fifth major permanent installation on campus, but the first one that’s indoors.”

He received a generous donation for the museum from New York’s Charles Knapp and family. The exhibit, whose logo is comprised of puzzle pieces in blue, yellow and green, is in Hebrew with a full translation into English and includes a number of video clips with interviews of HU scientists.

It was curated by Michal Broshi, who joined Camhi’s small team three years ago.

“I would be surprised if there is any campus museum like this anywhere in the world,” she said at the opening. “Jeff interviewed science students and faculty members around campus on what interests them. This is a very un-Israeli thing to do.”

The new sciences faculty dean, Prof. Jay Fineberg, added that it is a “wonderful idea and exhibited with great execution.”

For many scientists in different fields, thinking about research means thinking in the shape of a sand clock – broad on the top, narrow in the middle and broad on the bottom,” said Camhi. “Scientific research can start with small, seemingly trivial questions, but one can get an answer and develop it into something larger. Research is a tool to learn more.”

The videos present this pattern of thinking.

“Sometimes two or more heads are better than one,” notes one item in the exhibition.

“This exhibit is about the similarities and the differences among scientists in diverse fields and how bridging among them, as sometimes occurs on the campus, can broaden horizons and lead to important research advances.”

Via video, a handful of both veteran and young HU scientists in different fields explain their work and how they used other fields to advance their research. Dr. Assaf Friedler of the chemistry department, for example, focuses on the big questions on how chemical reactions in living cells carry out the activities of life. His smaller question is what kinds of cell activities result when different protein molecules bind chemically with each other. An even smaller question is what cell activities result from the chemical binding between two specific kinds of proteins.

“Friedler’s conclusion is that the technique of binding a short fragment to a protein and thus blocking cell division could be useful in controlling the enhanced cell division of cancerous tumors,” the chemistry expert said, marrying his work with that of oncologists. “Similar experiments on other proteins could help us understand how their chemical interactions carry out the activities of living cells.”

Other presentations examine how animals changed when they became domesticated and how one group of cells in the brain talk to another.

Camhi concluded that he and his team do not want to hear compliments.

“We would love to get criticism so we can do things better. We already heard a complaint that we spelled a name wrong. We will fix it.”

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