Aesthetic interconnection

As the Israel Museum winds up its campus renewal project, director James Snyder divulges ‘what makes a cultural place.'

By DAVID STROMBERG
May 7, 2010 16:00
James Snyder

James Snyder 311. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

Israel Museum director James Snyder believes that first and foremost there must be beauty. For a museum, this means balancing between the collections’ content, the building’s architecture and the location’s setting. When properly arranged, the result is what Snyder calls a “strong and successful cultural place.”

“I came to see the museum when asked to be its director [in 1996],” says Snyder, who before that had been neither to the museum nor to Israel. He was struck by how much realized and unrealized potential it had amassed in only 31 years. “I entered the front, ascended the promenade and thought: This is perhaps the strongest, most powerful cultural place – with its hybrid of Modernist architecture, the breadth of its collection and the site on which it was built.”

At the time, Snyder was asking the question of “what makes a cultural place” as a Loeb Fellow at the Harvard School of Design. He says he went home after his first trip seeing a remarkable potential which, if redone properly, could be the most powerful museum space anywhere. And since his contemplation of the makings of a cultural space coincided with the beginning of his tenure at the Israel Museum, he also had a chance to directly explore and implement his theories.

The first of these was to reconsider a project initiated before his arrival for razing a wooded area in the middle of the campus’s art garden and replacing it with a visitors’ pavilion. The time he spent studying this earlier project – which was eventually scrapped – gave Snyder the opportunity to crystallize the idea of what a proper redress should be.

“It had to strengthen and reinforce the power of the original with a proper entryway to move to a central point from which [a visitor] could access the galleries,” he explains. He further describes it as a “continuous unfolding” of “content from ancient to modern” eras.

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In a way, the current campus renewal project – which is being completed with a budget of $100 million within a 30-month construction period – is actually the development of his thesis as a Loeb Fellow: the reordering or renewing of cultural places without destroying the old and building something new from scratch. In his words, “It’s all about making use of realized and unrealized potential.”



In the case of the Israel Museum, this means doubling the size of the collection galleries to 20,000 square meters with the addition of a single gallery entrance pavilion in the heart of the original complex of buildings, along with a revamped entry-point featuring several new pavilions for admission, information, food and retail totaling around another 7,000 sq.m. The restaurant will now overlook not the parking lot but the picturesque Valley of the Cross.

THE NEW buildings were designed by New York-based architect James Carpenter, who took into account the museum’s original modular language while developing a signature of his own. Snyder was interested in working with Carpenter precisely because he wanted the project to allow the architect to develop his architectural language – one that focuses on transparency, translucency and light. In the case of the museum, it has resulted in large glass pavilions shaded by a system of glazed terra-cotta louvers (angled slats) which let in light from the north and south, and protect against direct sunlight from the east and west.

Carpenter also designed the connection between the museum entrance and the gallery entrance – an above-ground promenade under which will stretch a wheelchair-accessible, climate-controlled “route of passage.” These will lead to a central cardo where the museum’s various wings – including the Edmond J. and Lily Safra Fine Arts Wing, the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Wing for Jewish Art and Life (previously Judaica and Jewish Ethnography) and the Samuel and Saidye Bronfman Archeology Wing, as well as the auditorium and a new 1,000-sq.m. temporary exhibition space – will all be accessible from a single point.

This notion underscores the importance of flow behind the reorganization of the museum’s indoor galleries – work carried out by Tel Aviv-based firm Efrat-Kowalsky Architects, whose founding partner Zvi Efrat is head of the Department of Architecture at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem. Of particular note is the way that the Jewish Art and Life Wing, which now ends with Bezalel-era costumes and jewelry, moves directly into the Israeli art section of the Fine Arts Wing.

“Art in Israel began with Bezalel,” recalls Snyder, “which drew on European culture while focusing on objects and images of Jewish life in different world traditions.”

He explains that the museum is taking a more synthetic view of secular and sacred aspects of Jewish life. One way of channeling the scope of these traditions, for example, is through the transportation and reconstruction of an 18th-century, carved-wood synagogue donated by the Jewish community of Suriname in South America. The exhibitions includes a floor covered by white sand representing the ancient Jews’ years of wandering through the desert, as well as the sound-muffling technique used by crypto-Jews to hide their footsteps during secret prayer meetings.

The Israel Museum, Snyder emphasizes, is a mix, on the one hand, of architecture and landscape and, on the other, of art and archeology. “When I arrived and began talking to people, they all told me that [the Israel Museum] was many museums under one roof,” he says. “But the real point is that it’s one amazingly universal museum.”

Initially, the museum’s comprehensiveness made Snyder think twice about becoming its director. As someone interested in the modern period of art – “the point when moral content dropped out of visual art and was replaced with formal or visual content” – for him the past started at 1850 and looked forward from there. “I wondered whether I was qualified to run a place with a lot of material that predated this point.” But then he realized that it actually opened the floodgates to all the sources of modernism.

The reorganization of the museum helps to bring these connections to the forefront. “If you start at archeology with objects that are over a million years old and meander over to modern art,” he reflects, “you know intuitively that you’ve absorbed the experience of material objects that connect regardless of time and space.”


THE KEYWORD here is “intuitive.” Snyder believes that the beauty of a cultural place is passed through “subliminal input,” that the visitor can appreciate its beauty through details which are not always registered by the conscious mind.

According to him, coming to the museum is not only about being guided, oriented and educated – which is also important – but just as much about people benefiting and absorbing a positive response from the “synthetic beauty of material culture”: art, archeology, architecture. And he adds that this should be possible whether the visitor spends time at the museum formally or informally.

Discussing the museum’s key architectural elements – Alfred Mansfeld’s original modular complex of buildings, Frederick Kiesler’s Shrine of the Book and Isamu Noguchi’s Art Garden – Snyder points out that the site is infused with the beauty of modern sensibility. “For the average visitor,” he adds, “something about this landscape connects to contemporary time. And yet not far away is a 3,000-year-old city that’s still alive.”

Connecting the two conceptually is the model of Second Temple-era Jerusalem relocated from the Holyland Hotel in Bayit Vagan to a site next to the Shrine of the Book.

“The museum campus is at the top of several thousand years of cultural and material history,” muses Snyder, “and then you enter [its collections] and see objects dating back a million years.” The curatorial message inside the redesigned museum is similar: All things connect. Or, looked at another way, if there is an entryway into the museum’s collection based on personal experience or interest, it can be used to connect with subjects that are less familiar.

“Even if someone never uttered the word ‘aesthetic’ before,” says Snyder, “they can relate to the aesthetic architectural landscape because it’s of their time. This opens the door to a whole world of cultural richness that you might never have thought of before.”

Snyder reiterates that the whole point of reordering the campus was to tap its potential – “a pinpoint center which allows [the visitor] to filter out to the richness of the preexisting.”

“I’m a big believer in landscape,” says Snyder. “And the most important thing to do is to touch the landscape in a positive way.” It seems to him that with “serendipitous vision, Teddy [Kollek] seized the location and managed to pull together the elements to create what might be the most powerful cultural place on earth.”


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