Israel’s Treasure Trove

The Israel Museum, the country’s unofficial national repository of art, archaeology and ethnography, has a makeover

May 26, 2010 14:47
Torah ornaments at the Israel Museum

Israel Museum exhibt 311. (photo credit: Courtesy James Carpenter Design Associates)


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This article was published in the June 7 edition of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to the Jerusalem Report, click here.

Nearly a decade ago, the Israel Museum’s future looked bleak. The millennium year, which began with expectations of record numbers of tourists, ended with the outbreak of the second intifada, reducing the number of museum visitors by nearly two-thirds. Earned income dropped by half, as did government support. Staff, salaries and hours were cut and a regime of fiscal discipline ensued.

Today, with a budget that is still smaller than it was ten years ago and after an intifada that was followed by a global financial meltdown, the country’s leading showcase for fine arts, archaeology and ethnography is about to complete a $100 million renovation, the biggest ever of an Israeli cultural institution. The reconstruction project has included replacing all of the 20-acre campus’s infrastructures, adding three new buildings, doubling the museum’s exhibition space with a minimal increase of its external footprint and maintaining its original award-winning design while staying within budget and on the project’s 30-month schedule.

Newcomer from the New World

In addition to its three collection wings for fine arts, archaeology and Jewish art and life, the iconic Shrine of the Book, the Billy Rose Art Garden and the Ruth Youth Wing, the museum will now include three new entry pavilions for ticketing, information, restaurants, retail and special events, an enclosed route from the entrance to a new three-story gallery entrance pavilion, and 100,000 square feet of new exhibit galleries.

Museum officials say the goal of the project, besides upgrading aging facilities, was to enhance visitor experience by increasing the accessibility of the museum’s collections and reorganizing them in a more logical and understandable sequence.

“The trend among museums worldwide at a moment of reinvention tended to be that you took everything down and started from scratch, created dazzling signature architecture and did an exercise in transforming reinvention,” Museum Director James Snyder tells The Jerusalem Report in an interview in his office, ahead of the July 26 public opening. “We took the opposite approach. The issue wasn’t scale of the campus, because we already had scale. Nor was the issue trying to energize the power of the campus, because it’s quite powerful.


“Our idea from the beginning was how do you do a transforming renewal to reinforce the power and strength of the original,” says Snyder. The focus was on reordering the galleries to clarify the presentation of pre-existing and new content, with the architecture remaining subordinate to the original but resonant with it.

Snyder is an expert on the subject, having co-authored a book on museum design and building before coming to Israel, in 1996, to serve as director after 22 years at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. When he arrived, the museum had plans for a monumental new entrance pavilion, but it withdrew them after public protest that the new building would overshadow the existing architecture, designed by Bauhaus émigré Alfred Mansfeld and Dora Gad as modernist, modular cubes that mimic an Arab village gently descending from a hilltop.

“We declined to proceed with that plan and, in effect, we turned down a gift that was valued at more than $50 million,” says Snyder. “There was appreciation for the courage to decline to do something funded and the question was how we would ever find such funding again. Well, this is a $100-million project, which we funded through a collective initiative involving 20 families of friends worldwide, who gave us some $5 or $10 million each, $17.5 million from the government and a $5 million unit of funding from a foundation of families in Israel.”

Given the public outcry over the previous plan, the architects and designers hired for the renovation were given a mandate to renew and improve the campus while maintaining its character.

“The brief was to resolve the internal organizational problems, reorganize the entrance and circulation system, and locate potential areas for future expansion,” architects Meira Kowalsky and Zvi Efrat of Tel Aviv tell The Report in an e-mail interview. “Fortunately, Mansfeld created a modular and flexible system that could change and grow incrementally without losing its architectural character.”

Kowalsky and Efrat were in charge of designing and restoring all the existing galleries, a new temporary exhibition hall, a new art exhibition building and a new office building. James Carpenter Design Associates of New York was responsible for the design and construction of the new service buildings, entryway and underground passage.

“The idea was to do a new intervention in the campus without establishing new buildings that would overshadow the character and scale of the existing buildings,” James Carpenter tells The Report. “We accomplished a new bookstore, new dining facilities, much more storage at the museum, new ticketing – the same goals of the earlier program but in a much more intimate way.

“It is a very different approach than building a new building as the new centerpiece of the campus, much more focused on respecting the buildings that are there,” says Carpenter, recipient of a 2004 MacArthur “genius” grant. “I think everyone realized how successful the original campus was but there was previously a sense of not knowing your way around the museum and the collections. This new project is going to create a much clearer and much simpler experience. I think it takes very salient and powerful parts of Mansfeld’s design and makes them much clearer to the visitor.”

The project includes 80,000 square feet of new construction and 200,000 square feet of renovated and expanded gallery space within the museum’s 500,000 square foot architectural envelope. The extraction of service and movement routes from the existing envelope allowed the museum to reclaim 100,000 square feet of space and adapt them for gallery use. Excavation into the bedrock expanded the space by another 12,000 square feet in the middle of the campus.

Reorganization of the circulation routes facilitates visitor orientation. After passing through the ticketing information pavilions, visitors will now have a choice between ascending to the galleries by way of a renovated outdoor promenade and a newly designed, climate-controlled route of passage running below it. This walkway, designed by Carpenter, is flanked on one side by a translucent glass wall with a water channel, running along its top edge and letting the daylight in.

And besides offering the option of entering the museum without being exposed to Jerusalem’s harsh elements, the ascent will no longer be as steep as it was before, because it will now lead to the bottom floor of a new three-level Gallery Entrance Pavilion, in contrast to the previous entrance, which had required visitors to go down one floor to the main exhibits after climbing up the hill.

Like the three new entrance pavilions, this one, too, is a glass structure within a terra cotta louvered shaded enclosure, demonstrating Carpenter’s signature specialty in the interaction of light and building design. Whereas the Mansfeld buildings are white stone-clad curtain wall over modernist modular cubes, Carpenter’s architecture consists of glass modernist cubes, in the style of German-American architect Mies van der Rohe, whose shade houses are in the same palette of Jerusalem stone as Mansfeld’s buildings. The louvers on the east-west sides of the buildings are denser to provide more protection against the sun, and the play of light and shade, whether looking out from within or as seen from the outside, creates a subtle iridescence that resonates with the opaque old buildings.

The renovations included replacement of all of the museum’s electricity, sewage and air-conditioning infrastructures; construction of completely new floors consisting of 200,000 feet of terrazzo in four colors; and renewal of some of the campus’s original architectural features that had succumbed to wear and tear early on and had little chance to be appreciated by the public.

One such feature is the strip of black glass running at the top of the external walls right under the roof, which Mansfeld intended to reflect the changing sky and create a floating roofline. But because when the museum opened in 1965 the glass available did not filter the light and heat, the windows were painted up right away and stayed that way for 45 years. Now it has all been replaced by ultraviolet-free, infrared-free glass with heat and light deflection.

“We’ve done new glazing to create this line that Mansfeld always wanted to achieve but it never existed,” Snyder tells The Report during a tour of the construction site. “Now we have this great glass, which allows the view out during the day and from the outside gives the sense of floating roofs and at night will allow the luminescence of the interior to come out. This opens the whole experience to what he had in mind.”

The galleries were built with lotus columns supporting the floating roofs, with concrete curtain walls as backdrops for the displays, “which no one has seen in years and we’ve recreated,” Snyder says. “We brought a special paint company from Germany that helped us strip off all the goop of 40 years of painting and patching to arrive at this pristine original concrete.”

But although there is a palpable feeling of excitement among the museum’s 350 staff and 480 volunteers, there are also voices of criticism and apprehension. A museum employee who spoke to The Report on condition of anonymity, says Snyder “is involved with every detail and makes all the decisions,” down to what should be shown in the display cases. “As museum director that’s his prerogative but it really goes down to what you might think would be curatorial decisions,” says the employee.

“Overall he wants a really clean look of ‘less is more.’ It’s very sparse. The cases are pretty empty. That’s his approach. A lot of curators have a problem with that. They’re trying to tell a story and part of it might be better told with a group of objects.”

The employee is also concerned that, although on schedule, the work was done too fast, that new features such as the glass buildings will require tremendous upkeep, and that no work at all was done on the part of the museum not seen by the public, like the cramped and crumbling offices and facilities.

A volunteer docent who was learning her way around the new complex felt ambivalent. “I was very attached to the old museum,” she said.

Snyder actually addresses these feelings in his book. “A fond memory of what existed previously, regardless of how inadequate it may have been, may seem more appealing than what is new,” he writes. “At the exhausting, and hopefully exhilarating moment of completion, it is not easy for the staff to look immediately to the next horizon and some postpartum depression is to be expected. At such a time a little rest is in order.”

The roots of the Israel Museum stretch all the way back to the early days of Zionism. Inspired by the nascent arts and crafts movement sponsored by the king of Bulgaria to foster a sense of national identity, the Lithuanian-born Jewish artist Boris Schatz conceived the idea of Jews establishing an academy of arts and crafts in Palestine. He presented the idea to the Seventh Zionist Conference in Basel in 1905 and opened the Bezalel School of Arts and Crafts in the Ottoman backwater town of Jerusalem the following February.

Named after the biblical Hebrew craftsman who built the Tabernacle in the desert, and opened in an old Turkish building that previously served as a harem, the art school searched for a new national style. Its initial collection consisted more of natural history than of art: flora, fauna and archaeology were collected, displayed and used to inspire the artists and craftsmen of Bezalel to draw the landscape and incorporate local elements in their work.

Meanwhile, Jewish art was brought from the Diaspora as an act of Zionism. With the great European national museums, the Louvre and the British Museum, as their models, Schatz and his successor, Bezalel Narkiss, hoped to create a new collective memory and reeducate immigrants from different countries in their new national identity. In 1925, the Bezalel National Museum opened as “the first national Jewish Museum in Eretz Israel and the entire world,” housing collections of antiquities and Jewish art.

In 1927, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. financed the construction of the Palestine Archaeological Museum, which became the main repository of local antiquities, leaving Bezalel with growing collections of art and Judaica. In the 1930s an influx of German Jews fleeing Nazi Germany arrived, some bringing their art collections with them. Museum director Narkiss mined these treasures as well as traveling to Europe to rescue Jewish art.

After World War II, American occupation forces collected some looted Jewish art and distributed it to Jewish institutions, including Bezalel. In 1947, Narkiss returned from a trip to Europe with personal gifts from Picasso, Matisse, Chagall, Rouault and others. Whereas at first there had been a question of how to fill the galleries, now space was beginning to be tight.

Meanwhile, in the 1948 war in which the State of Israel was born, East Jerusalem fell to Jordan, and with it the Rockefeller Museum. The new state’s Ministry of Education soon established a Department of Antiquities with a small museum. Just a few months earlier the Dead Sea Scrolls had been discovered, and they too needed an appropriate showcase.

In 1948, Bezalel director Narkiss began to conceive of “a truly modern museum of glass, steel and concrete atop a hill,” former museum director Martin Weyl writes in a history of the Israel Museum. This museum was to encompass archaeology as well as art. The man of action who was to take the dream and turn it into a reality was Teddy Kollek, later the mayor of Jerusalem, who in the early 1950s was a minister in the Israeli Embassy in Washington.

It was during his US stint that Kollek met art collectors who told him they would gladly donate their collections to Israel – but there was nowhere to put them. After his return to Israel, now as prime minister David Ben-Gurion’s bureau chief, Kollek championed the cause of a national museum.

He convinced US Jew Bernard Katzen to persuade Congress to approve 1.5 million Israeli pounds for the museum as part of “counterpart funds” between the two countries, and secured the promise of 20 acres of land on Jerusalem’s Hill of Tranquility, where the museum now stands. The advantages of this at-the-time remote location were its distance from the volatile border and its proximity to the Monastery of the Cross, a Byzantine Greek-Orthodox monastery, highlighting the city’s juxtaposition of old and new.

With the Hebrew University’s Givat Ram campus on one side and the Knesset on the other, the museum is now the centerpiece of a lofty complex of culture, government and study, close to Jerusalem’s main entrance but apart from the congested bustle of the city center. The Bloomfield Science Museum and the Bible Lands Museum both opened next to the Israel Museum in 1992, creating a local “museum mile” opposite the government complex on either side of Ruppin Blvd.

It was the worldly, Viennese-educated Kollek, an unmatched master of fundraising, who secured financing from New York’s Gottesman family for a special building to house the Dead Sea Scrolls, designed by American architect Frederick Kiesler and Armand Bartos. The children of Samuel Bronfman in Canada underwrote the archaeology wing. Kollek convinced New York showman Billy Rose to donate his sculpture collection to the museum. Rose did so, on condition that it be displayed in a sculpture garden designed by American sculptor Isamu Noguchi.

Architect Mansfeld and interior designer Dora Gad won the commission for the building in a competition between 10 architects. Kollek, who took leave from the Prime Minister’s Office to attend to his functions as chairman of the board, insisted the museum reach for world standards. Like other national museums, it would be an encyclopaedic institution with a huge range, from prehistory to modern avant-garde. The Youth Wing, which today hosts 100,000 children a year for educational projects and visits, was another early emphasis at the museum, consistent with its mission of nation-building.

The opening of the Israel Museum in May 1965 is remembered as a moment of elation. The Valley of the Cross was illuminated with floodlights. The Israel Defense Forces and Cadet Corps orchestras played. A chapter of the Bible was read and president Zalman Shazar declared the official opening.

The museum was an instant success. From the start its beauty was legendary. The combination of architecture, landscape, the sculpture garden, Jerusalem and the scrolls has been a major world attraction ever since. Even during the current renewal project, with 90 percent of the campus off-limits except the Shrine of the Book (home of the Dead Sea Scrolls), the Model of Second Temple Period Jerusalem, the Youth Wing and the garden, the museum attracted around half a million visitors in each of the last two years, the highest numbers since the beginning of the intifada.

“It’s amazing how every minute the space changes,” says Daisy Raccah-Djivre, the chief curator of the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Wing for Jewish Art and Life, as she installs Hanukka menoras in special window cases along three walls of her renovated wing, which has 25 percent more display space than she had before. “The concept of the displays is to present the objects in their context and we put each menora in its own case ‘to demonstrate the miracle,’ just like people do in reality,” she tells The Report.

Like other museum officials Raccah-Djivre stresses the reorganization of the galleries into a more coherent narrative. “Before we were like two separated spaces, Judaica and ethnography. Now they are fully integrated into one narrative and with integrity of design language and routes. I think it will feel like a different place.”

The backbone of this wing is a new “synagogue route” of four fully reconstructed synagogues from Italy, Germany, India and Suriname. “Along this synagogue route, besides the beautiful synagogues, you can see the wonderful Torah ornaments related to the synagogue or from other places,” explains Raccah-Djivre. “It’s very colorful and like a journey through the continents and from all parts of the world. You really feel like you are on a journey.”

Other new highlights that will be on view are an 18th-century embroidered Torah ark curtain from Kriegshaber, Germany, 19th century jewelry from Izmir, Turkey, traditionally given to a bride and saved as security for purchasing a burial plot, the 15th century Nuremberg Haggada and a collection of works by early Bezalel artists.

Suzanne Landau, chief curator of the Edmond J. and Lily Safra Fine Arts Wing, heads the most complex wing in the museum, with 10 departments, each with its own team of curators, spanning a diversity from classical European art to modern and contemporary, Israeli and international, prints and drawings, design and architecture and non-Western art. This wing will now cover two floors. “Before the renewal project it was all mixed,” Landau tells The Report. “The circulation and sequence of the gallery was haphazard. If a new gallery was added, nothing else was changed. So you moved from Oceania straight to impressionist and postimpressionist.

“One of the purposes of the renewal was to help the visitor make sense and logic in the sequence of the gallery. The first floor is only permanent installations and the second floor is only changing exhibitions. The first-time visitor more interested in permanent displays will go to the first floor. Those who already know the collections and only want to see the new ones will go upstairs. Before it was mixed. Now it is very clear.”

For the first time in the history of the museum the permanent installations will include a historic display of Israeli art. This was, surprisingly, a contentious issue when the museum was founded. At first there was no pavilion for Israeli art. Even when an offer came of a donation to build one in 1965, the museum’s artistic consultant at the time, Willem Sandberg, rejected it, saying he could not discern a separate school of Israeli painting. The concern was that if there was a separate category for Israeli art, it would always be held to a lower standard.

But this set off a constant grumble of discontent in the Israeli art community, and the board finally decided, in the interest of nation-building, to build a special Israeli art pavilion, which opened in 1985.

“We always felt that Israeli art should be here but somehow the constellation of the galleries did not allow its own space,” says Landau. Now Israeli art will be displayed both in the permanent exhibits on the ground floor and as part of the changing exhibits upstairs. Half of the exhibits in the Fine Arts Wing will be shown for the first time, including a painting by 19th century artist Gustave Courbet, a painting by Alberto Giacometti, a monumental sculpture called “The Boy from South Tel Aviv” by Israeli Ohad Meromi, and two commissioned pieces: a large outdoor installation by Anish Kapoor and an installation by Olafur Eliasson consisting of 300 paintings in the successive colors of the rainbow, titled “Whenever the Rainbow Appears,” which will greet visitors in the new entry gallery.

The Samuel and Saidye Bronfman Archaeology Wing, organized chronologically from prehistory through the Ottoman Empire, will highlight subjects in ancient Israeli archaeology according to themes, as well as showcasing the treasures of neighboring cultures, such as Egypt, the Near East, Greece, Rome and the Islamic world.

“The Youth Wing amazingly connects to archaeology in the Byzantine gallery where the three monotheistic faiths begin with the same monotheistic roots and then begin their divergent iconography and theology,” says museum director Snyder, “so all those kids coming in will see that their divergent faiths all come from the same source material.”

When Israel captured East Jerusalem in the 1967 war, it gained control of the Rockefeller Archaeological Museum, which now functions as an off-site location of the Israel Museum, as does the historic Ticho House in downtown Jerusalem, where contemporary art is exhibited.

Snyder notes that given its history of the not-always-smooth merging of art and archaeology, as well as its other unique features, “there used to be an axiom that the museum is many museums under one roof.” But when he took a professional look at it as a newcomer, he said, “you know what? It’s actually one museum that has the potential to tell the narrative of the material culture and the visual culture from the first moment a million years ago to the present of this region of the world and cultures worldwide.”

“And I thought to myself that this was an amazing place that did not need to be remade, it only needed to be redressed.”   

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