Anyone who has driven around the eastern side of the Tel Aviv University campus over the last year or so will probably have espied an intriguing looking edifice in the making. Located along the university ring road, facing the more conventionally contoured academic buildings, the structure-in-the-making certainly catches the eye.
“Anyone who passes by on the street here notices this going up,” says Alon Sapan. “It is a striking design.” Sapan is the director of the evolving institution which will go by the name of the Steinhardt Museum of Natural History and is due to open for business next summer. The eponymous principal benefactor of the project in hand is US financier Michael Steinhardt.
When completed, the museum will serve as an impressive repository of animal specimens, taking in close to 5.5 million samples of insects, birds, reptiles and animals, that will shed light on the natural progression of the Middle East, and further afield, over the ages.
The building’s external shape is a premeditated effort to evoke poignant biblical connotations.
“The design is supposed to be reminiscent of Noah’s Ark,” Sapan explains. That, I jovially suggest, prompts a couple of pertinent questions.
Is Sapan expecting a deluge anytime soon? And will there be only a pair of each species stored at the museum? “Negative, on both counts,” the director comes back at me, with a chuckle. “We need rain, but let’s hope it comes in reasonable quantities.” Amen to that.
The museum is not, in truth, a phoenixlike creature rising from an arid substratum. The millions of specimens, including several thousand that will be on display, are being culled from their current sites, dotted around the university and other spots. It should also be noted that the new institution has a well-established antecedent.
“This project has been around for a long time,” notes museum chairman Prof. Tamar Dayan. “It was established before Tel Aviv University started [in 1956]. The museum has been part of the university’s master plan since its inception. But, you know, projects can take time to materialize.
You have the construction processes, not just the physical construction but also putting collections together, accumulating know-how and imparting scientific information. We are delighted that it has finally all come together, and the museum will open very soon.”
Dayan says the new establishment will play a pivotal role in expanding our knowledge of the world around us, and is part of a tried-and-tested tradition.
“Many major academic institutions around the world, like Cambridge and Harvard, have their own [natural history] research facilities and collections. If we want to know what species exist in the world, and how they coexist with other species, and how human beings impact on ecosystems, we need natural history museums with research facilities.”
The burgeoning building in Ramat Aviv will be in good company when it gets up and running.
“Natural history museums have become very popular, again, in recent years,” observes Dayan. “That is mostly because of the environmental challenges we face today. And the most important element in addressing those challenges is to understand what is happening with natural ecosystems. We know that, in this technological era, the consumption of natural resources has had a detrimental effect on the environmental system, and its functioning, in very significant areas that we are now witnessing in daily life.”
We clearly need to get our act in order. “The great challenge of humankind is to find a way to sustain a world with an enormous population, while maintaining the variety of roles of the ecosystem, for the better of humankind.”
Both Dayan and Sapan see the museum playing a role in helping to get us back more into sync with Mother Nature’s treasures and bring us face-to-face – in some cases literally – with creatures we don’t meet on the street, or in the store, or even on TV or YouTube.
“Natural history museums are like archives of the biological range we have on Earth,” Dayan continues.
“In the Western world, although not uniquely, increasing numbers of people are taking an interest in the things that are happening around them. Natural history museums are the places to share this knowledge, and our insight, and the wonders of the Creation, with the general public.”
People of all ages still take the bother of getting out of their houses, away from their screens and virtual data, and take themselves and their children to see life-sized stuffed animals and all kinds of far smaller biological entities, stored at public institutions.
Dayan says there is no substitute for seeing the real thing. “When you see something that may be the only one of its kind in existence, or is very rare, you can appreciate the power of natural history museums.”
There is plenty of behind-the-scenes added value, too. “In terms of research, there is no substitute for that,” Dayan adds.
The vast majority of the 5.5 million items that will be housed in the new museum will be stored for research purposes, although there will be several thousand exhibits displayed for public visual, and emotional, consumption, across 1,700 square meters of floor space.
“We expect the museum will attract something in the range of 150,000 to 200,000 visitors a year,” Sapan surmises, echoing Dayan’s sunshiny public demand picture. “People – whole families – go to natural history museums all over the world, and we expect that to happen here, too.”
The construction of the museum is sponsored by various government ministries and public bodies, but Dayan says that she and her colleagues are primarily indebted to Steinhardt for his ongoing support.
“He has been with us for over 20 years,” she says. “He came to us with vision and determination and a strong desire to do something good for the State of Israel. He wanted us to create a worthy natural history museum, a place where children come and are excited by what they find, and can see some of nature’s miracles. The higher-education sector has known some very tough years, but Michael Steinhardt stuck with us, through thick and thin.”
Dayan notes that tourists from foreign climes will also have the opportunity to get up close to exhibits they will not have seen in Tel Aviv, London or Vienna.
“We will house documentation of the natural world of Israel. Our local natural world is particularly rich. We will also have a gallery that portrays the history of humankind in our region. In that area, this is one of the most exciting places in the world. We hope that visitors to the museum will also learn about the place of the human being in nature and in this region.”