The Israel Museum lives up to its name

National treasure undergoes $100m. facelift.

Israel Museum (photo credit: Courtesy)
Israel Museum
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Five years and $100 million later, the renewed campus of the Israel Museum will be inaugurated on Sunday.
Featuring the comprehensive renovation and reconfiguration of the museum’s three collection wings – for archeology, the fine arts, and Jewish art and life – as well as the reinstallation of its encyclopedic collections, the overhaul of the country’s flagship museum was a labor of love for its dapper director of 13 years, James S. Snyder.
“Our idea was to celebrate, invigorate and realize the original vision for the powerful site and setting,” he told visiting reporters late last week, speaking as a full contingent of workers in hard hats scurried in all corners of the museum to complete the renovations.
Much more than a facelift, it’s more like a rebirth of the 45- year-old institution. Overseen by James Carpenter Design Associates of New York and Efrat Kowalsky Architects of Tel Aviv, the architects were determined to complement the original museum, designed by Alfred Mansfeld and Dora Gad, that then-Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek founded in 1965.
“When I arrived here for the first time seven years ago, I recognized on the campus a remarkable sense of intimacy between the landscape and the architecture,” Carpenter said.
“It had incredible resonance relative to an individual’s movement through the landscape and into the remarkable buildings – there was the strength of the Noguchi art garden, the remarkable building designed by Frederick Kiesler and Armand Bartos, which houses the Dead Sea Scrolls, and of course the Mansfeld buildings for the original museum.
“We looked at our challenge of how one might integrate and more seamlessly pull together the three very potent pieces of the campus, and by doing so, intertwine new architecture that relates to those original buildings and enhance one’s relation to the landscape,” Carpenter said.
The spectacular results of Carpenter’s and Efrat Kowalsky’s efforts will become evident to anyone who visits. Arrivals will no longer have to brave the scorching sun or blustery wind and rain on the uphill outside Carter’s Promenade to make their way from the entrance to the displays.
A new, glass-enclosed, temperature- controlled route of passage situated directly below the promenade brings visitors into the lowest level of a new threestory gallery entrance pavilion, providing centralized access to the museum’s three collection wings and temporary exhibition galleries on its main floor.
Calling it a tall order, Snyder praised the architects, saying that the new museum offers “a transformed way of moving to the heart of the campus through a new route of passage, and new central core developed by Jamie Carpenter. And the reengineering within the campus without changing the envelope, yet at the same time doubling our gallery space, was an accomplishment achieved by Efrat Kowalsky.”
The museum’s collection wings – the Samuel and Saidye Bronfman Archaeology Wing, the Edmond and Lily Safra Fine Arts Wing, and the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Wing for Jewish Art and Life – have all been redone, with the concept that less is more.
“The renewal of the preexisting architecture is about the complete reordering of the preexisting museum in order to double our collection galleries from 100,000 square feet to 200,000,” said Snyder.
With fewer objects on display and almost twice the space the view them in, the feeling of claustrophobic overload has been replaced by open spaces and logical presentation. Snyder stressed that the redesign focused on quality of the content – “the reordering within our existing campus and providing a unique experience of the march through material cultural time.
“In archeology, this means the narrative in the ancient Land of Israel from prehistory through the time of the Ottoman Diaspora, in fine arts, it means showcasing the comprehensive and rich holdings of the Western and non- Western tradition. In Jewish art and life, and particularly for us in Israel and in the Jewish world, it means drawing a meaningful connection of the place in the world of Jewish culture, both sacred and secular, within the broader continuum of time.”
Snyder explained that the redesign was about “two chapters of one story – journey and renewal. We reordered our content so that from the moment you step on to the campus, you’re given an intuitive experience across 20 acres of navigation which takes you across a million years of material culture.”
The museum’s new galleries are opening with a series of exhibitions highlighting recent acquisitions and long-held masterpieces across its collections. Among the innovations are the first permanent galleries for Israeli art and more than double the gallery space for the extensive Modern Art holdings in the Fine Arts wing.
Snyder also touted the newly configured Synagogue Route at the heart of the Jewish Art and Life wing, which, in addition to existing synagogue interiors from Italy, Germany and India, features a newly restored 18th-century synagogue from Suriname in South America.
“It’s a showstopper,” Snyder said.
But it may receive competition from other displays, introduced to celebrate the completion of the renovations. The museum turned over three galleries to three artists – Israeli Zvi Goldstein, British-Nigerian Yinka Shonibare and London-based American Susan Hiller – and made them an unusual offer.
“We gave them the pleasurable mandate to use any work from across our collection of 500,000 pieces to create their own vision,” said Snyder, describing the temporary threepart exhibition that juxtaposes works from all three of the museum’s collection wings.
The renewed campus will also feature two new site-specific commissioned works – Olafur Eliasson’s “Whenever the Rainbow Appears” and Anish Kapoor’s “Turning The World Upside Down, Jerusalem,” both created with a focus on their location in Jerusalem.
Called “magnificent” by Snyder, Eliasson’s “Whenever the Rainbow Appears,” installed at the end of the museum’s new route of passage, recreates the visible light spectrum in a series of 360 monochromatically painted canvases.
“It resonates with the unique quality of light in Jerusalem,” said Snyder.
Kapoor’s “Turning The World Upside Down, Jerusalem” is situated at Crown Plaza, the highest outdoor point on the museum’s campus.
Standing five meters high, the sculpture captures both the Jerusalem sky and the landscape of the campus in its polished stainless steel surfaces.
“It was commissioned especially to pay tribute to the power, strength and beauty of Teddy Kollek’s original vision of this site in Jerusalem,” Snyder said.
As Jerusalem, and the rest of the country, prepare to celebrate the unveiling of the renewed museum, a weeklong series of public programs and events is planned, including concerts by prominent Israeli musicians, activities in the galleries for all audiences, and a latenight art and music festival, engaging artists, writers, and performers with the museum and its landscape.
All events are free with museum admission.
Throughout this week, the museum is extending its opening hours, offering tours of new exhibitions and gallery installations, art workshops for children, and live music in the galleries.
On Tuesday, Shalom Hanoch will perform an evening concert in the Billy Rose Art Garden, and the weeklong celebration culminates on Thursday with an evening concert by Yehudit Ravitz in the Art Garden, followed by Contact Point, a night of activities throughout the campus, including dramatic encounters between artists, writers and performers with artworks in the galleries and across the landscape.
“They’ll come to interact with our campus, to resonate with the campus – with the objects here and the landscape – in exactly the way we feel and hope every aspect of the campus resonates with the other,” said Snyder.
Like architect Carpenter, the 58-year-old museum director had his own story about his first visit to the museum on his first day in Israel back in 1996.
“I felt the power of this place... That first day I thought this was a place I need to come to.
“I thought also this is a place where, once we can get our arms around it, it deserves a redressing. Because when I came, the message was that this is many museums under one roof. I thought to myself how much powerful this place would be when it becomes one continuous timeline of material culture under one magnificent roof.”
It’s taken 13 years – the last two and a half years with up to 90 percent of the museum under construction – but his vision has finally been realized.
“It’s daunting and humbling for us to realize that 45 years after the founding of this place, we may be well be achieving the realization of what Teddy Kollek’s vision was all about. For us, who are only custodians of this place, it is a great privilege,” Snyder said.