The Israel Museum .
(photo credit: ZIV BERKOVITZ/ DAVID KEDEM)
Ran Tal’s fascinating new documentary The Museum is a look at Jerusalem’s Israel Museum. It isn’t a conventional documentary with film clips showing the establishment of the museum and talking-heads shots of experts discussing its importance. Instead, it’s a look inside the museum, at how it brings together a disparate group of people – curators, artists, guards, volunteers, soldiers, art lovers and others – from all over Jerusalem, Israel and the world and what the place means to all of them. You won’t learn any statistics about the museum, but the movie illuminates the essence of this complex institution.
Tal is one of Israel’s most accomplished documentary directors. His films include Children of the Sun, about children growing up on kibbutzim, which used the narration of adults reminiscing juxtaposed with home movies, and Garden of Eden, a look at the Gan Hashlosha National Park, better known as Sakhne. His method is to get to the essence of a place or an idea and to reveal what strikes him most forcefully. This impressionist method may be frustrating to traditionalists, but it gets to the heart of a subject much more intensely than a conventional documentary.
opens with a dark screen. We hear the voices of a man and a woman. The man is describing a painting, and the woman is asking questions about it, as if she can’t see it for herself.
We then see this couple, who are standing in front of Rene Magritte’s Castle in the Pyrenees, which shows a castle atop a huge rock suspended in the air above the ocean, and we realize that the woman is blind. As with all the participants in the film, we don’t get to know their names or any background information, other than what they tell us.
The woman says that when she visits the museum and people describe paintings to her, she learns as much about them as about the painting. In a recent screening in Jerusalem, Tal cited this quote and said that it is the key to the movie, which is a kind of tour of the museum through the lives of all of those who feel a connection to it.
The film examines the museum by focusing on all kinds of moments and details, both sublime and ridiculous. A woman supervising renovations on the Shrine of the Book gets a call from her daughter, who wants to borrow her sneakers. Another woman tells how it affected her grandmother when their community synagogue in Venice was moved to the museum. Guards get their assignments for the day, and one of them talks about being from a religious family. Curators in chic black outfits plan an exhibition and tell burly workmen where to place the artworks. Another employee tells how he went to the US during the Gulf War to deliver a Roman artifact detailing how slaves who served in the army became Roman citizens. Security guards find a jackal in the gardens one night.
It may seem random, but just like a gallery show, it’s all artfully curated. It features clips of the museum’s celebrations in 2015 and uses this as an opportunity to show former Israel Museum director James Snyder in action. He describes what art meant to him when he was growing up as one of the only Jewish kids in a working-class Pennsylvania town and how he feels about the museum. There is also a short discussion with Arab visitors about whether the museum’s collection of Palestinian artifacts should be displayed or not.
Perhaps the most important aspect of the movie is that it captures the extraordinary vitality and variety of the Israel Museum. It made me want to visit the museum and become part of this shifting panorama, and I suspect it will have the same effect on many viewers.