It's only natural...

Museumgoers and happy summer campers from around the city want to keep the Natural History Museum in the German colony as much for its contents as for its cultural activities.

The garden attracts locals and visitors. (photo credit: Nelly Gluzman)
The garden attracts locals and visitors.
(photo credit: Nelly Gluzman)
Walking into the Natural History Museum in the summertime, one is greeted by children laughing and running around though the gardens, playing in nature.
But according to hundreds who protested last week against the museum’s imminent closure, reports in the media and museum public relations head Galia Hendel, this might be the last year visitors are treated to such a sight.
Deputy Mayor Naomi Tsur, however, told In Jerusalem this week that reports of closure are based on rumor, not fact. It has been widely believed that the museum would be closed, and the building possibly demolished, to make way for the Shalem Center’s new liberal arts college. The college is subject to approval of accreditation from the Council for Higher Education.
“It is all very fluid at the moment; no final resolution has been discussed yet,” says Tsur, adding that the municipality owns the museum, and has an interest in maintaining the historical building.
The building “will be conserved completely and thoroughly and the municipality will invest a lot to keep [it] up to scratch,” according to Tsur.
If the Shalem Center is built on the museum’s property, the museum will be given an alternative location next to the Science Museum, but the community garden will be maintained.
The municipality, which she claims is representing the interests of the Natural History Museum, is in discussions with the local community center and the Shalem Center.
Tsur adds that if the museum is moved, it will be developed by Science Museum director Maya Halevi as a museum of natural science.
More than 400 people attended the July 26 protest, which hosted speakers such as Azaria Alon, nicknamed “Mr. Nature” for his role as a founder of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, and Dr. Ariel Hirshfield, a professor of Hebrew literature at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. More than 7,000 people have signed a petition calling for the museum and its community garden to be saved. As a result of the protest, the mayor’s office has agreed to meet with the museum officials on August 14.
Unlike its grander namesakes elsewhere in the world, Jerusalem’s Natural History Museum also functions as a community center, where people go to socialize, paint, participate in bi-weekly story hours and hold birthday parties, explains Hendel, who is also a museum guide. The museum director is Sidney Corcos, who is a diorama expert and taxidermist, responsible for the exhibits of mounted animals that have become the museum’s hallmark.
Surrounding the museum is a community garden, where neighbors cultivate the land and grow flowers, fruits and vegetables together in an environmentally friendly setting. The garden has continued to expand since Hendel first came up with the idea, and it now attracts local residents and foreign visitors alike. People with special needs often visit the garden and museum and participate in bring-and-exchange activities and compost making. Plants from the garden are sold to raise money for charity.
According to Hendel, employees of the museum first learned of the plans to close it when a newspaper article stated that the Shalem Center had been given land to build a library in the space that is now the museum’s parking lot. After writing letters to the mayor’s office, Hendel received a response confirming that there were indeed plans to close the museum at its current site.
“If they relocate the museum, I am afraid the whole community aspect will go and so much of its special magic will be lost,” says Liat Collins, who formerly lived nearby and has been a devotee of the museum for more than 20 years.“You could move the museum, but you could never recreate it. The moment you transplanted it from its natural surroundings, not only would the museum lose its special feel but the garden which is such a gem would be lost to the general public.
“Where else but in Jerusalem are you going to find a dinosaur named Zerubabel and a snake named King David?” she adds.
Every week, some 3,500 people participate in some sort of educational project related to the museum, according to the museum brochure. This number includes visitors onsite, in addition to people who are educated by museum staff outside of the museum. The museum guides hold teachers’ seminars, visit community centers and educate children in various neighborhoods, including the Arab residents of the Old City. In addition, animals are brought to old-age homes for animal therapy.
The museum houses a dinosaur exhibit, a taxidermy collection, a human body display and much more. A mounted lion and lioness given to former Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek by former president of Uganda Idi Amin are also displayed. There is a petting zoo with many birds, mammals and reptiles, including a boa constrictor.
The museum, which opened its doors in 1962, is located in a beautiful old stone building adorned with mosaics. In the 19th century, the house was located in a primarily Armenian area and belonged to a cotton merchant who sold his products from India. The house was transferred to Ottoman rule in the 20th century, and after World War I the property was a center for British officers. It was briefly abandoned until Zvi Lev established the museum. German landscaper Yehiel Segal designed the plans for the museum. There is still a strong relationship between Germany and the Natural History Museum, and once a year Corcos travels to Germany. Gifts to the museum from Germany include a 100-year-old telescope.
“About every 10 years someone comes around to try to steal it,” says Hendel.
The museum holds one of the oldest summer camps in Jerusalem. This summer, 270 children are attending one or more of the three sessions.
“The camp gives the children extra values, teaching them about nature and science and exposing them to animals they would not be exposed to otherwise, such as snakes and reptiles,” says Collins, whose son has attended the museum’s summer camp for the past six years. “It is a very mixed socioeconomic group, not just kids from the neighborhood, but from all over the city,” she says.
The camp caters to children from religious and non-religious backgrounds, and from Arab neighborhoods.
In regard to the Shalem Center’s relationship with the museum, Shay Porat, media adviser of the center, says, “I understand that this is something that is more between the municipality and the citizens rather than us, because we are not exactly the issue here.”
“I don’t feel that an American liberal arts college fits into this particular location in Jerusalem as well as the Natural History Museum does,” comments one neighbor.