With coronavirus restrictions lifted, why is the Israel Museum closed?

While some smaller museums have been able to reopen a few of their galleries, Jerusalem’s Israel Museum has remained closed to visitors

THE ISRAEL MUSEUM – to reopen. (photo credit: TIMOTHY HURSLEY)
THE ISRAEL MUSEUM – to reopen.
(photo credit: TIMOTHY HURSLEY)
Museum directors always have to make long-term plans, but Israel Museum director Prof. Ido Bruno currently finds himself in a situation caused by the coronavirus pandemic in which he can only guess at what the future holds – and when Israel’s flagship museum will be able to reopen.
“We had to shut down very abruptly in March, like flicking a switch, and overnight we had to rethink our position in the world,” he said in a phone interview on Tuesday.
While some smaller museums have been able to reopen a few of their galleries, Jerusalem’s Israel Museum has remained closed to visitors. But Bruno, who became the museum director in 2017 and was previously a professor in the Industrial Design Department of the Bezalel Academy of Arts & Design, Jerusalem, emphasized that whether it is open to visitors or not, the museum needs a staggering amount of work that can never stop.
The museum contains approximately half a million objects that must be tended like a garden, with constant restoration, maintenance, conservation, security and much more. In addition, the museum is involved with plans to borrow and lend works with other institutions for future exhibits.
Right now this work is being done with only about 10% of the museum’s staff, since about 90% of the employees were furloughed when the COVID-19 crisis began.
But these figures only tell part of the story. The fact is that while the Israel Museum, which was established 55 years ago, is thought by many to be the national museum of Israel, it is not.
Although it houses the Dead Sea Scrolls, contains countless archaeological gems and features many items of great Jewish and Israeli historical, cultural and artistic significance, as well as a collection of great art from around world, and provides educational programs for Israelis from nearly every sector, including children, soldiers and people with special needs, it does not have any special status in terms of its budget with the government. While it does get some governmental support – Bruno said that between 12% and 18% of its budget comes from the government – it is mostly financed through donations (about 45%-50%). Ticket sales account for the rest of the museum’s income.
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Since the museum is part of the must-see itinerary for virtually every tourist, the complete shutdown of tourism over the last few months has hit the Israel Museum especially hard.
Given this uncertainty, a hasty reopening could do more harm than good.
“If we reopen and bring back all employees by July 1, we could have a 25 million shekel deficit by the end of December and an ongoing deficit for 2021 and 2022,” he said.
IF TOURISM continues to be affected by the virus restrictions in the coming year, “We could have a 44 million shekel deficit by the end of 2022. We need to have a sustainable financial plan for two years.”
Bruno is currently meeting virtually non-stop with officials from the Culture and Finance ministries to try to come up with a plan and a budget that will work, no matter what happens with the virus.
“There are signs that both ministries definitely realize that there is a major challenge here for the Israeli government and Israeli society.... We need to have a finite budget we can rely on 100%. Until we have precise numbers, we won’t reopen. If we bring back employees and start paying their salaries again we’ll be standing on the edge of the cliff” and looking into an uncertain future, one where employees may no longer be eligible for coronavirus-related benefits such as social security payments.
Bruno has tried to focus on the silver lining of this crisis by expanding and broadening the museum’s digital presence.
“Overnight, the entrance to the museum became a virtual entrance,” he said. “We built a mini-site with talks, lectures, all sorts of activity that is new and dedicated to this period in time. We’re still transforming it.”
There has always been content on the museum’s website, but now it has added to its online offerings, with a program called “The Museum in the Palm of Your Hand,” that includes virtual tours, interactive exhibits (including many for children), gallery talks and a look behind the scenes.
This crisis – and the fact that no one knows for sure when tourism will return to its normal volume – has inspired Bruno and his staff to rethink the role that digital content will play in the museum’s future.
This challenge brings to mind Bruno’s closing remarks in the “Secrets of the Art Garden” tour that is available on the museum’s website. In this tour, Bruno tells the story of how Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi came to the site of the museum in 1960 to design the Billy Rose Art Garden, took one look at the landscape and tore up his plans, eventually returning with the striking design that incorporates the beauty and slope of the Jerusalem hills.
“I think this story is a wonderful story to tell at any time, but especially beautiful these days when we need to look at the plans we made and the vectors of our ideas and the ways we wanted to move forward and say, ‘Wait a minute. Maybe we need to change a little bit, maybe we need to reconsider, because the time and the place may be a little different from the way we imagined it.’ And I think it’s a nice story to go forward with as we redesign our lives to fit the current situation.”