Israeli arts scene reverses tradition; now comes to your home screen

There is no argument that hi-tech does have its advantages.

Israeli arts scene reverses tradition; now comes to your home screen (photo credit: Courtesy)
Israeli arts scene reverses tradition; now comes to your home screen
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Some of us – particularly those of a more venerable age – may moan that “things aren’t the way they used to be.” That may be erring on the side of nostalgia, or an accurate take on how matters really have deteriorated, spiritually and/or socially, as technology has increasingly replaced the human touch.
But there is no argument that hi-tech does have its advantages. Ask any grandparent how they feel about the wonders of, say, Skype which allows them not only to chat with, but also to see, a grandchild who lives on the other side of the world – especially now when flying over yonder is a total no-no.
Now, with physical contact and proximity considered by many to be taboo, if not downright dangerous, and with the ban on gatherings of more than 10 people, virtual meetings and remote confluences have become de rigueur in the current pandemic of the novel coronavirus.
Institutions active in the arts and general culture field are having to turn to Internet-facilitated means of conveyance to bring their wares to the people, rather than the other way round. The Israel Museum of Jerusalem (IMJ), Tel Aviv Museum of Art (TAMA), the facilities that comprise the Haifa Museums group and the Jerusalem Artists House are among the leading cultural repositories that have jumped on the technological bandwagon, as they close their doors to the corporeal viewing public.
The IMJ, the country’s premier repository of artistic and cultural artifacts already has quite a few virtual offerings available. Museum director Prof. Ido Bruno says he and his staff – those who have not been put on leave – have been gearing up for the current predicament for a while. “For the past 10 days, or even a bit longer, we have realized which way the wind was blowing. We devised 4 scenarios and work plans for each,” he says.
It wasn’t just a matter of theoretical hit and miss, and hoping one of the strategies would suit unfolding circumstances. Things moved along at pace. “The rate of our work meant that we moved from scenario 1 to scenario 4 within 5 days,” he chuckles. “Scenario 4 was that we close the museum down, which included the staff – that meant we would not be carrying on with our normal activities.” That is a blow for all concerned, with the gems stored and presented in the museum’s vast exhibition halls now off limits to the world.
But, Bruno is keen to point out, it is not all doom and gloom. “We have a lot of work to do, to care for artifacts on loan with us and our own artifacts that are displayed at various places around the world. But, in addition to the challenges and difficulties, we are also looking at the opportunities this situation is generating.” That sounds like an encouragingly positive take on the coronavirus lockdown.
WHEN THE going gets tough, the tough get going – out there. “I think one of the things we can do is to greatly enhance our accessibility towards the outside, via a digital platform,” he proffers. “We are constructing a mini-site which will be launched this week. The mini-site will pool all this activity, and will contain new material which we are currently preparing.” There will apparently be plenty on offer. “We have all sorts of virtual tours of exhibitions and all sorts of things – very successful things – we have worked on in recent years. We did a Google Art project a few years back.” That initiative takes in dozens of items from the museum, including paintings, Judaica and valuable archeological finds. “We have [virtual] tours of all our collections, with very high quality images. And we have a virtual tour of the Jewish Art and Life Wing. It is a bit like Google Street View, whereby you proceed from point to point.”
Bruno and the museum have a personal track record in the area. “I remember being the designer of an exhibition on the topic of time in 2000 in the Youth Wing, and we created a virtual tour of that.” It is all grist to the coronavirus-situation mill. “We have a lot of material [to display virtually]. We will do some curating of the existing material and we will upload the suitable material that goes together well.”
That will be complemented by breaking news offerings. “We will have new things, broadcast live, such as a session with a curator of a specific exhibition,” Bruno continues, adding that it won’t be one-way traffic. “There will be interactive elements. People will be able to contact the curator and ask questions. That will all take a while but that is the direction we are looking at – making more and more things accessible [online] and to benefit from what our curators, and others, have to offer.”
I wondered whether, having become forcibly accustomed to accessing the IMJ treasures from afar, after the pandemic hopefully peters out, the public will simply view the exhibits via their computers, smartphones, etc., and not bother making the trip to the sprawling Jerusalem hilltop perch. Bruno does not envisage that undesirable state of affairs materializing.
“I have been following the data relating to virtual museum access for quite a few years now. It interests me greatly. The fascinating fact is –  that for institutions that provide such online services – there is the opposite phenomenon. Exposure to the content of the museums online actually encourages more people to visit, rather than the opposite,” said Bruno.
The proof is in the attendance pudding, says Bruno, and is there to be ingested. “The data can be divided into three – before, during and after. You go into the online information beforehand, as a preparation for the [physical] visit to the museum. There is digital material you get during the tour – audio guides or other digital information in the museum – and then you go back into the museum website, after actually being there, to gain a more immersive perspective, more information, and to refer others to the exhibitions.” 
Clearly, Bruno feels the IMJ will not only survive the closure period, but actually come through it stronger and better connected with its public.
Tania Coen-Uzzielli, TAMA director gave an address four years ago to the first Humanities Policy Makers Conference at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem, where she noted that the role of the 21st-century museum is not merely “to collect, pool and preserve material cultural treasures and works of art. In fact, its primary mission, and particularly in the last few years, is to make this material culture accessible to the general public.” That includes a swathe of exhibitions featuring the eye-catching Absolute Value exhibition, with works by American neo-pop artist Jeff Koons, which opened on March 10.
The practicability and effectiveness of that line of thought have upped appreciably in these trying days and Coen-Uzzielli believes desperate times call for desperate measures. “I said that this virus has been defined as an enemy, and this situation as war. They say that ‘when the guns roar, the muses are silent.’ The sanctum of the muses is the museum, so the museum is supposed to be silent. The museum may be closed now, but it is not silent. In this era, we are able to be accessible, even though our doors are shut.”
Like her counterpart Bruno, the Tel Aviv Museum honcho feels that virtual exposure can help to engender wider and deeper interest in what lies in store at the institution. “We are making our materials available via the Internet, digitally, and we hope that people will be excited about what we have and will subsequently come to the museum to see them with their own eyes.” The pandemic constraints-compatible museum package includes virtual tours and activities for kids, moderated by the museum’s guides. All of which, says the director, can help nurture a sense of togetherness in these strange and physically estranged times.  “I hope these means will not only promote the museum’s image but also cultivate a community aspect. If we arrive at a stage when we all have to isolate, in this way, at least, parents and children will be able to do things together at home.”
RATHER THAN  deter patrons, Coen-Uzielli feels hi-tech access to the museum’s exhibits can offer members of the public a more intimate familiarity with the artifacts.  “Currently we don’t have the ability to offer the public digital close-ups of works, but I don’t rule that out happening at some stage in the future. But I do think that, sometimes, a virtual tour can help to focus on the works in a manner which does not happen when you physically visit an exhibition. We may focus specifically, for example, on the restoration process of some work. That would be interesting for people to see.”
The unity factor permeates the museum personnel, too, she says, while endeavoring to walk the sunny side of the street. “I hope we come out of all of this stronger. I see how our employees keep coming up with new ideas. That’s wonderful.”
Elsewhere around the country, the Haifa Museums group, which incorporates seven institutions around the city, is offering the public “a virtual experience of lectures, interviews with artists, exhibition tours and workshops for children which can be enjoyed at home.” The group’s press release noted that there is more on the way. “Over the next few days we will upload on Facebook, Instagram and the Haifa Museums web site, content that will provide an alternative cultural experience for a range of audiences: older adults, children and families.”
Down the coast, in Netanya, the local authority offered a bunch of online live musical broadcasts, including performances by the Tremelo percussion ensemble, a concert by instrumentalists from the Netanya Conservatory of Music together with singer Hagit Zuaretz, and a live transmission with vocalist Roi Ezer accompanied by flamenco dancer Liat Kaplinsky.
Over in Jerusalem, the National Library of Israel came up with the idea of making several dozen audio books available online, free of charge, while the Hibba Cultural Center, which focuses on Jewish cultural tradition, urged the public to connect with heartwarming and spiritually uplifting ethnic musical sounds and some intellectual stimulation, via its YouTube channel.
We may be down but, at least on the arts and cultural front, we are definitely not out.
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