A night at the museum

A dark walk through Jerusalem’s Nature Museum is surprising in many ways.

There is a sculpture garden on the grounds of the Nature Museum. (photo credit: ISRAEL21C)
There is a sculpture garden on the grounds of the Nature Museum.
(photo credit: ISRAEL21C)
There is an old story about two rambunctious youngsters who run away from home and take up residence in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
When visitors go home, the security guards lock up and the lights go off, the museum belongs to the children.
There’s something that resonates with people about finding a way to make something so public uniquely their own. In the experimental theater production The Opposite of Alive, one has the chance to do just that.
The Nature Museum in the German Colony serves as the stage for this enjoyable, thought-provoking Thursday night activity. In The Opposite of Alive, the visitor takes a solitary, audio-guided tour through the darkened museum with only a flashlight to illuminate the way.
At night, the grounds of the museum take on a hauntedwoods feel, a side of Jerusalem people don’t really get to experience.
With one table set up with wine and tea for those picking up their tickets, an attendant explains how the night will play out.
“Wait a moment,” she says as she hands out headphones and an audio player. “You will hear a woman’s voice, and she will direct you to the museum. You will be alone, but she will guide you. She will be with you the whole time.”
The “performance” is a confluence of interactive theater and a revitalization of the experience of touring a museum. The old, Arab-style mansion changed hands many times before it became the present educational facility. It’s set up as a residence, having been occupied by the Turkish governor under the Ottoman Empire and the British high commissioner during the Mandate. The audio guide begins the tour with some historical facts about the museum, but around every turn is a surprise courtesy of creators Michal Vaaknin and Ilanit Ben Yaacov, who explore different themes and emotions. Not least of those is the fear of being alone.
WHEN VAAKNIN first came to the museum, she was struck by a certain mystery and tension emanating from the space. The museum is still in use today by visitors, tourists and school groups, but outdated exhibits of stuffed wild animals and human anatomy give it an abandoned feel.
“It took me a lot of time to understand how to invite the audience to see it,” Vaaknin says, sitting outside the museum on the sofas where visitors congregate after the tour. “That tension between life and death... is the most interesting thing here. The person who is coming to this museum, he is actually the only living thing.”
Hazira Performance Art Arena artistic director Guy Biran encouraged Vaaknin, whose background is in directing and theater, to create a performance that was specifically “out of the box.” The two had worked together previously in a “site-specific” workshop, which focused on using a location to add an extra element to a performance. After a few more workshops, Biran asked Vaaknin to create something in that context.
“Out of that rolled the idea of the museum,” Biran says, “which I immediately liked, and went on to produce it in collaboration with the Jerusalem Season of Culture.”
Vaaknin worked with Ben Yaacov to write the script, with Elite Kraiz as the narrator and Binya Reches to record the sound.
“At a certain point Binya came in, and his input was really important,” Vaaknin says.
One of the difficulties they encountered was guiding the listener through the museum without getting caught up in details of direction. “We thought, how are we going to make people know where [the speaker] is?” What they did was record the sound in the space so it sounds like the woman is walking with the visitor. Her voice and footsteps are heard, so the listener follows.
"Some people even talk back at her because it sounds so much like she is there with you," Vaaknin says.
Getting the management of the Nature Museum on board was also a small struggle for the team.
“They were a bit suspicious, which you can understand,” Biran says. He had worked with the museum on different projects during the Israel Festival in 2002 and had developed a relationship over the past 12 years. “They knew me, so they gave us a chance. Soon afterward, they fell in love with Michal and the team and realized how powerful this project can be for their interest as well.”
The performance, which was two years in the making, has been operating for about a year and a half.
It debuted at the Jerusalem Season of Culture during the summer of 2012.
Hazira is known for funding and supporting experimental theater in Jerusalem, as well as funding projects in music and dance.
“This project goes perfectly with the agenda of Hazira,” Biran says. “To be an experimental platform for unique and innovative artists, to encourage them to meet sites in Jerusalem, which will create a fresh new meaning.”
People coming out of the tour express shock and amazement; each person is usually guaranteed a unique experience. There are the usual things one would expect when walking into the museum, such as the wildlife displays, but the creators have added extra elements that suggest the visitor pause, reflect and (spoiler alert) have a little snack.
“I really have no idea what’s going on in there,” Vaaknin jests. “Every person who walks in there, something else happens. It’s like its not real, it’s a character, but its really real, there is no way to direct it or touch it.”
With all the pleasant surprises, Vaaknin loves hearing how each person reacts. Just outside the exit, where she sits, more wine and tea are on hand, inviting people to stay and chat.
“That’s the best part, that you meet everybody,” she says. “Its much more interesting than applause.” 
The Opposite of Alive takes place every Thursday from 7 p.m. until 11 p.m. at the Nature Museum on 6 Mohilever Street.
For reservations, call 678-3378. Tickets are NIS 60. For more information, visit www.hazira.org.il/home/en.