Looking east

A new exhibition at Rockefeller is geared toward attracting visitors to one of the city’s most overlooked architectural gems.

Alona Rodeh (photo credit: Courtesy)
Alona Rodeh
(photo credit: Courtesy)
One would be hard-pressed to find a house, never mind a museum, that has undergone little change in the Holy City in over 70 years. Yet such is the case with the Rockefeller Museum in east Jerusalem, literally a five-minute stroll from Damascus Gate. Given the richness of its collection and architectural beauty, not to mention the credence and import attached to archeological and biblical findings in this country, it is surprising that more Israelis are not aware of this institution.
“Maybe it’s fear of going into the eastern part of the city,” speculates Rinat Edelstein, one of the organizers of the Manofim project. Manofim – which began in 2008 under the guidance of fellow organizer Leehe Shulov with the intention of “exposing new art in the city,” and has grown into a significant week-long event in Jerusalem’s art calendar – recently initiated an exhibition of contemporary art at the museum.
Titled “Re:Visiting Rockefeller,” it attempts “to start the knowledge that there is something there,” says Edelstein. The museum and east Jerusalem are “a part of our reality.”
Following on from last year’s Manofim event at the Tower of David, Shulov says, “we knew that we wanted to continue our project and to explore this movement toward the eastern part of the city.”
The municipality art program does not cater much to east Jerusalem; with the exceptions of privately funded Al-Ma’mal Foundation and Al-Hoash Gallery, almost all artistic activity takes place in the western part of the city. Not only does this bring the east/west Jerusalem divide into sharp focus, but it means the residents of west Jerusalem are losing out.
THE ROCKEFELLER Museum was built during the time of the British Mandate in 1938, thanks to the financial backing of American philanthropist John D.
Rockefeller Jr. Since its founding, when it was known as the Palestine Archeological Museum, it has reflected the fractiousness that has plagued the Holy City in modern times. Initially administered by the Palestine government, alternately by an appointed board and council of international trustees, then by the Jordanian Department of Antiquities, it came under Israeli jurisdiction during the 1967 Six Day War, when it became known as the Rockefeller Archeological Museum. Today the museum is under the auspices of the Israel Museum and the Israel Antiquities Authority, whose offices are situated on the museum grounds.
The building, constructed with the white limestone traditionally used in Jerusalem, was designed by English architect Austen St. Barbe Harrison and was considered an excellent example of modern architecture in its time. Harrison fused elements of Islamic architecture with traditional Western influences into a structure composed of several wings and a group of individual structures. The latter include the Tower Hall, the South and North Octagons, the Cloisters and the museum’s focal point, the Central Courtyard, where sit two of the building’s few decorative features: a water pool and alcove covered with customdesigned Armenian ceramic tiles.
What is particularly striking about the building is the overall harmony and balance of its interior, achieved through an asymmetrical approach that incorporates clean, geometric forms, and noticeable in the curves and arches of its domed and vaulted ceilings, which are reminiscent of European cathedrals.
Harrison used highly skilled craftsman for specific decorative features. The observant visitor will notice bas-reliefs in stone and that each archeological era is carved into the building’s walls in the three dominant languages of Mandatory Palestine – English, Arabic and Hebrew. One can also still see the impressive, specially fitted walnut doors that were imported from Turkey, and their cast-iron fittings brought from England.
It was the British who were primarily responsible for initiating the museum, with the intention of housing some of the many antiquities being discovered on archeological digs in the first part of the 20th century. The works date from the Neolithic age to the Ottoman period, and the collection, which numbers in the thousands, is remarkable and still sits in the same chronological order as when first installed, seemingly mapping out the archeological history of the Holy Land.
Mosaics, statues and a host of other artifacts extend throughout the museum. Sited in the north and south galleries in glass cabinets are a vast array of earthenware figures and clay vessels, such as urns, water pitchers and bowls, and a variety of other items including glassworks, jewelry and an early example of a bathtub. The works pay homage to the cultures that inhabited the land, and chart the progress and growth of craftsmanship over its different historical periods.
There are many highlights on display throughout the Rockefeller: carved panels from Al-Aksa Mosque, marble and stucco works from Hisham’s Palace and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and a 9,000-yearold statue from Jericho, to name a few.
FOR SHULOV and Edelstein, putting contemporary art into this old-world setting provided its own set of challenges.
“When we invited the curators, we talked about the best approach and decided not to try and compete with what is there, but rather to try and reveal what already exists,” says Shulov.
The result is a selection of works of varying degrees of interest, most of which rarely intrude on their surroundings.
An untitled video work by Daniel Kiczales that is at turns compelling and meditative shows a group of candles set aflame in a basin of water. One by one, the flames diminish, then go out. Placed in the museum’s South Room alongside the carved wooden panels from Al-Aksa Mosque, the work creates an almost religious aura.
Alona Rodeh and Shai Id Aloni show sculpted found objects, both pieces resembling figures from primitive cultures, while Bianca Eshel Gershuni’s mixed-media works are rooted in the artist’s personal memories. Gershuni, the former wife of acclaimed artist Moshe Gershuni, is one of the country’s first postmodern artists. Using materials such as fur, tar, feathers and miniature doll-like figures, she creates strange but wonderful works, suggestive of some voodoo-like, tribal rite.
Rockefeller curator Fawzi Ibrahim says the Manofim project has helped bring new visitors to the museum, and he hopes to have more exhibits of contemporary art in the future. He is aware of the problem of getting Jewish residents to visit the eastern part of the city, even though the museum charges no entrance fee.
“Occasionally Arab schools will bring groups for a visit,” he says, “but so far, no Israeli schools have come.”
For Shulov and Edelstein, the project has been rewarding. For now, it seems that visitors to the Rockefeller can peruse the exhibits and enjoy the relative calm and seclusion of one of the most beautiful museums in the country. The exhibition runs until April 20. Entry is free at all times. For more information: www.english.imjnet.org.il/htmls/page–1684.aspx?c0=15160&bsp=14162.