Israel’s Treasure Trove

The Israel Museum, the country’s unofficial national repository of art, archaeology and ethnography, has a makeover

Israel Museum exhibt 311 (photo credit: Courtesy James Carpenter Design Associates)
Israel Museum exhibt 311
(photo credit: Courtesy James Carpenter Design Associates)
This article was published in the June 7 edition of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to the Jerusalem Report, click here.
Nearly a decade ago, the Israel Museum’s future looked bleak. The millennium year, which began with expectations of record numbers of tourists, ended with the outbreak of the second intifada, reducing the number of museum visitors by nearly two-thirds. Earned income dropped by half, as did government support. Staff, salaries and hours were cut and a regime of fiscal discipline ensued.
Today, with a budget that is still smaller than it was ten years ago and after an intifada that was followed by a global financial meltdown, the country’s leading showcase for fine arts, archaeology and ethnography is about to complete a $100 million renovation, the biggest ever of an Israeli cultural institution. The reconstruction project has included replacing all of the 20-acre campus’s infrastructures, adding three new buildings, doubling the museum’s exhibition space with a minimal increase of its external footprint and maintaining its original award-winning design while staying within budget and on the project’s 30-month schedule.

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In addition to its three collection wings for fine arts, archaeologyand Jewish art and life, the iconic Shrine of the Book, the Billy RoseArt Garden and the Ruth Youth Wing, the museum will now include threenew entry pavilions for ticketing, information, restaurants, retail andspecial events, an enclosed route from the entrance to a newthree-story gallery entrance pavilion, and 100,000 square feet of newexhibit galleries.
Museum officials say the goal of the project, besides upgrading agingfacilities, was to enhance visitor experience by increasing theaccessibility of the museum’s collections and reorganizing them in amore logical and understandable sequence.
“The trend among museums worldwide at a moment of reinvention tended tobe that you took everything down and started from scratch, createddazzling signature architecture and did an exercise in transformingreinvention,” Museum Director James Snyder tells The Jerusalem Reportin an interview in his office, ahead of the July 26 public opening. “Wetook the opposite approach. The issue wasn’t scale of the campus,because we already had scale. Nor was the issue trying to energize thepower of the campus, because it’s quite powerful.
“Our idea from the beginning was how do you do a transforming renewalto reinforce the power and strength of the original,” says Snyder. Thefocus was on reordering the galleries to clarify the presentation ofpre-existing and new content, with the architecture remainingsubordinate to the original but resonant with it.
Snyder is an expert on the subject, having co-authored a book on museumdesign and building before coming to Israel, in 1996, to serve asdirector after 22 years at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Whenhe arrived, the museum had plans for a monumental new entrancepavilion, but it withdrew them after public protest that the newbuilding would overshadow the existing architecture, designed byBauhaus émigré Alfred Mansfeld and Dora Gad as modernist, modular cubesthat mimic an Arab village gently descending from a hilltop.
“We declined to proceed with that plan and, in effect, we turned down agift that was valued at more than $50 million,” says Snyder. “There wasappreciation for the courage to decline to do something funded and thequestion was how we would ever find such funding again. Well, this is a$100-million project, which we funded through a collective initiativeinvolving 20 families of friends worldwide, who gave us some $5 or $10million each, $17.5 million from the government and a $5 million unitof funding from a foundation of families in Israel.”
Given the public outcry over the previous plan, the architects anddesigners hired for the renovation were given a mandate to renew andimprove the campus while maintaining its character.
“The brief was to resolve the internal organizational problems,reorganize the entrance and circulation system, and locate potentialareas for future expansion,” architects Meira Kowalsky and Zvi Efrat ofTel Aviv tell The Report in an e-mail interview. “Fortunately, Mansfeldcreated a modular and flexible system that could change and growincrementally without losing its architectural character.”
Kowalsky and Efrat were in charge of designing and restoring all theexisting galleries, a new temporary exhibition hall, a new artexhibition building and a new office building. James Carpenter DesignAssociates of New York was responsible for the design and constructionof the new service buildings, entryway and underground passage.
“The idea was to do a new intervention in the campus withoutestablishing new buildings that would overshadow the character andscale of the existing buildings,” James Carpenter tells The Report. “Weaccomplished a new bookstore, new dining facilities, much more storageat the museum, new ticketing – the same goals of the earlier programbut in a much more intimate way.
“It is a very different approach than building a new building as thenew centerpiece of the campus, much more focused on respecting thebuildings that are there,” says Carpenter, recipient of a 2004MacArthur “genius” grant. “I think everyone realized how successful theoriginal campus was but there was previously a sense of not knowingyour way around the museum and the collections. This new project isgoing to create a much clearer and much simpler experience. I think ittakes very salient and powerful parts of Mansfeld’s design and makesthem much clearer to the visitor.”
The project includes 80,000 square feet of new construction and 200,000square feet of renovated and expanded gallery space within the museum’s500,000 square foot architectural envelope. The extraction of serviceand movement routes from the existing envelope allowed the museum toreclaim 100,000 square feet of space and adapt them for gallery use.Excavation into the bedrock expanded the space by another 12,000 squarefeet in the middle of the campus.
Reorganization of the circulation routes facilitates visitororientation. After passing through the ticketing information pavilions,visitors will now have a choice between ascending to the galleries byway of a renovated outdoor promenade and a newly designed,climate-controlled route of passage running below it. This walkway,designed by Carpenter, is flanked on one side by a translucent glasswall with a water channel, running along its top edge and letting thedaylight in.
And besides offering the option of entering the museum without beingexposed to Jerusalem’s harsh elements, the ascent will no longer be assteep as it was before, because it will now lead to the bottom floor ofa new three-level Gallery Entrance Pavilion, in contrast to theprevious entrance, which had required visitors to go down one floor tothe main exhibits after climbing up the hill.
Like the three new entrance pavilions, this one, too, is a glassstructure within a terra cotta louvered shaded enclosure, demonstratingCarpenter’s signature specialty in the interaction of light andbuilding design. Whereas the Mansfeld buildings are white stone-cladcurtain wall over modernist modular cubes, Carpenter’s architectureconsists of glass modernist cubes, in the style of German-Americanarchitect Mies van der Rohe, whose shade houses are in the same paletteof Jerusalem stone as Mansfeld’s buildings. The louvers on theeast-west sides of the buildings are denser to provide more protectionagainst the sun, and the play of light and shade, whether looking outfrom within or as seen from the outside, creates a subtle iridescencethat resonates with the opaque old buildings.
The renovations included replacement of all of the museum’selectricity, sewage and air-conditioning infrastructures; constructionof completely new floors consisting of 200,000 feet of terrazzo in fourcolors; and renewal of some of the campus’s original architecturalfeatures that had succumbed to wear and tear early on and had littlechance to be appreciated by the public.
One such feature is the strip of black glass running at the top of theexternal walls right under the roof, which Mansfeld intended to reflectthe changing sky and create a floating roofline. But because when themuseum opened in 1965 the glass available did not filter the light andheat, the windows were painted up right away and stayed that way for 45years. Now it has all been replaced by ultraviolet-free, infrared-freeglass with heat and light deflection.
“We’ve done new glazing to create this line that Mansfeld always wantedto achieve but it never existed,” Snyder tells The Report during a tourof the construction site. “Now we have this great glass, which allowsthe view out during the day and from the outside gives the sense offloating roofs and at night will allow the luminescence of the interiorto come out. This opens the whole experience to what he had in mind.”
The galleries were built with lotus columns supporting the floatingroofs, with concrete curtain walls as backdrops for the displays,“which no one has seen in years and we’ve recreated,” Snyder says. “Webrought a special paint company from Germany that helped us strip offall the goop of 40 years of painting and patching to arrive at thispristine original concrete.”
But although there is a palpable feeling of excitement among themuseum’s 350 staff and 480 volunteers, there are also voices ofcriticism and apprehension. A museum employee who spoke to The Reporton condition of anonymity, says Snyder “is involved with every detailand makes all the decisions,” down to what should be shown in thedisplay cases. “As museum director that’s his prerogative but it reallygoes down to what you might think would be curatorial decisions,” saysthe employee.
“Overall he wants a really clean look of ‘less is more.’ It’s verysparse. The cases are pretty empty. That’s his approach. A lot ofcurators have a problem with that. They’re trying to tell a story andpart of it might be better told with a group of objects.”
The employee is also concerned that, although on schedule, the work wasdone too fast, that new features such as the glass buildings willrequire tremendous upkeep, and that no work at all was done on the partof the museum not seen by the public, like the cramped and crumblingoffices and facilities.
A volunteer docent who was learning her way around the new complex feltambivalent. “I was very attached to the old museum,” she said.
Snyder actually addresses these feelings in his book. “A fond memory ofwhat existed previously, regardless of how inadequate it may have been,may seem more appealing than what is new,” he writes. “At theexhausting, and hopefully exhilarating moment of completion, it is noteasy for the staff to look immediately to the next horizon and somepostpartum depression is to be expected. At such a time a little restis in order.”
The roots of the Israel Museum stretch all the way back to the earlydays of Zionism. Inspired by the nascent arts and crafts movementsponsored by the king of Bulgaria to foster a sense of nationalidentity, the Lithuanian-born Jewish artist Boris Schatz conceived theidea of Jews establishing an academy of arts and crafts in Palestine.He presented the idea to the Seventh Zionist Conference in Basel in1905 and opened the Bezalel School of Arts and Crafts in the Ottomanbackwater town of Jerusalem the following February.
Named after the biblical Hebrew craftsman who built the Tabernacle inthe desert, and opened in an old Turkish building that previouslyserved as a harem, the art school searched for a new national style.Its initial collection consisted more of natural history than of art:flora, fauna and archaeology were collected, displayed and used toinspire the artists and craftsmen of Bezalel to draw the landscape andincorporate local elements in their work.
Meanwhile, Jewish art was brought from the Diaspora as an act ofZionism. With the great European national museums, the Louvre and theBritish Museum, as their models, Schatz and his successor, BezalelNarkiss, hoped to create a new collective memory and reeducateimmigrants from different countries in their new national identity. In1925, the Bezalel National Museum opened as “the first national JewishMuseum in Eretz Israel and the entire world,” housing collections ofantiquities and Jewish art.
In 1927, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. financed the construction of thePalestine Archaeological Museum, which became the main repository oflocal antiquities, leaving Bezalel with growing collections of art andJudaica. In the 1930s an influx of German Jews fleeing Nazi Germanyarrived, some bringing their art collections with them. Museum directorNarkiss mined these treasures as well as traveling to Europe to rescueJewish art.
After World War II, American occupation forces collected some lootedJewish art and distributed it to Jewish institutions, includingBezalel. In 1947, Narkiss returned from a trip to Europe with personalgifts from Picasso, Matisse, Chagall, Rouault and others. Whereas atfirst there had been a question of how to fill the galleries, now spacewas beginning to be tight.
Meanwhile, in the 1948 war in which the State of Israel was born, EastJerusalem fell to Jordan, and with it the Rockefeller Museum. The newstate’s Ministry of Education soon established a Department ofAntiquities with a small museum. Just a few months earlier the Dead SeaScrolls had been discovered, and they too needed an appropriateshowcase.
In 1948, Bezalel director Narkiss began to conceive of “a truly modernmuseum of glass, steel and concrete atop a hill,” former museumdirector Martin Weyl writes in a history of the Israel Museum. Thismuseum was to encompass archaeology as well as art. The man of actionwho was to take the dream and turn it into a reality was Teddy Kollek,later the mayor of Jerusalem, who in the early 1950s was a minister inthe Israeli Embassy in Washington.
It was during his US stint that Kollek met art collectors who told himthey would gladly donate their collections to Israel – but there wasnowhere to put them. After his return to Israel, now as prime ministerDavid Ben-Gurion’s bureau chief, Kollek championed the cause of anational museum.
He convinced US Jew Bernard Katzen to persuade Congress to approve 1.5million Israeli pounds for the museum as part of “counterpart funds”between the two countries, and secured the promise of 20 acres of landon Jerusalem’s Hill of Tranquility, where the museum now stands. Theadvantages of this at-the-time remote location were its distance fromthe volatile border and its proximity to the Monastery of the Cross, aByzantine Greek-Orthodox monastery, highlighting the city’sjuxtaposition of old and new.
With the Hebrew University’s Givat Ram campus on one side and theKnesset on the other, the museum is now the centerpiece of a loftycomplex of culture, government and study, close to Jerusalem’s mainentrance but apart from the congested bustle of the city center. TheBloomfield Science Museum and the Bible Lands Museum both opened nextto the Israel Museum in 1992, creating a local “museum mile” oppositethe government complex on either side of Ruppin Blvd.
It was the worldly, Viennese-educated Kollek, an unmatched master offundraising, who secured financing from New York’s Gottesman family fora special building to house the Dead Sea Scrolls, designed by Americanarchitect Frederick Kiesler and Armand Bartos. The children of SamuelBronfman in Canada underwrote the archaeology wing. Kollek convincedNew York showman Billy Rose to donate his sculpture collection to themuseum. Rose did so, on condition that it be displayed in a sculpturegarden designed by American sculptor Isamu Noguchi.
Architect Mansfeld and interior designer Dora Gad won the commissionfor the building in a competition between 10 architects. Kollek, whotook leave from the Prime Minister’s Office to attend to his functionsas chairman of the board, insisted the museum reach for worldstandards. Like other national museums, it would be an encyclopaedicinstitution with a huge range, from prehistory to modern avant-garde.The Youth Wing, which today hosts 100,000 children a year foreducational projects and visits, was another early emphasis at themuseum, consistent with its mission of nation-building.
The opening of the Israel Museum in May 1965 is remembered as a momentof elation. The Valley of the Cross was illuminated with floodlights.The Israel Defense Forces and Cadet Corps orchestras played. A chapterof the Bible was read and president Zalman Shazar declared the officialopening.
The museum was an instant success. From the start its beauty waslegendary. The combination of architecture, landscape, the sculpturegarden, Jerusalem and the scrolls has been a major world attractionever since. Even during the current renewal project, with 90 percent ofthe campus off-limits except the Shrine of the Book (home of the DeadSea Scrolls), the Model of Second Temple Period Jerusalem, the YouthWing and the garden, the museum attracted around half a millionvisitors in each of the last two years, the highest numbers since thebeginning of the intifada.
“It’s amazing how every minute the space changes,” says DaisyRaccah-Djivre, the chief curator of the Jack, Joseph and Morton MandelWing for Jewish Art and Life, as she installs Hanukka menoras inspecial window cases along three walls of her renovated wing, which has25 percent more display space than she had before. “The concept of thedisplays is to present the objects in their context and we put eachmenora in its own case ‘to demonstrate the miracle,’ just like peopledo in reality,” she tells The Report.
Like other museum officials Raccah-Djivre stresses the reorganizationof the galleries into a more coherent narrative. “Before we were liketwo separated spaces, Judaica and ethnography. Now they are fullyintegrated into one narrative and with integrity of design language androutes. I think it will feel like a different place.”
The backbone of this wing is a new “synagogue route” of four fullyreconstructed synagogues from Italy, Germany, India and Suriname.“Along this synagogue route, besides the beautiful synagogues, you cansee the wonderful Torah ornaments related to the synagogue or fromother places,” explains Raccah-Djivre. “It’s very colorful and like ajourney through the continents and from all parts of the world. Youreally feel like you are on a journey.”
Other new highlights that will be on view are an 18th-centuryembroidered Torah ark curtain from Kriegshaber, Germany, 19th centuryjewelry from Izmir, Turkey, traditionally given to a bride and saved assecurity for purchasing a burial plot, the 15th century NurembergHaggada and a collection of works by early Bezalel artists.
Suzanne Landau, chief curator of the Edmond J. and Lily Safra Fine ArtsWing, heads the most complex wing in the museum, with 10 departments,each with its own team of curators, spanning a diversity from classicalEuropean art to modern and contemporary, Israeli and international,prints and drawings, design and architecture and non-Western art. Thiswing will now cover two floors. “Before the renewal project it was allmixed,” Landau tells The Report. “The circulation and sequence of thegallery was haphazard. If a new gallery was added, nothing else waschanged. So you moved from Oceania straight to impressionist andpostimpressionist.
“One of the purposes of the renewal was to help the visitor make senseand logic in the sequence of the gallery. The first floor is onlypermanent installations and the second floor is only changingexhibitions. The first-time visitor more interested in permanentdisplays will go to the first floor. Those who already know thecollections and only want to see the new ones will go upstairs. Beforeit was mixed. Now it is very clear.”
For the first time in the history of the museum the permanentinstallations will include a historic display of Israeli art. This was,surprisingly, a contentious issue when the museum was founded. At firstthere was no pavilion for Israeli art. Even when an offer came of adonation to build one in 1965, the museum’s artistic consultant at thetime, Willem Sandberg, rejected it, saying he could not discern aseparate school of Israeli painting. The concern was that if there wasa separate category for Israeli art, it would always be held to a lowerstandard.
But this set off a constant grumble of discontent in the Israeli artcommunity, and the board finally decided, in the interest ofnation-building, to build a special Israeli art pavilion, which openedin 1985.
“We always felt that Israeli art should be here but somehow theconstellation of the galleries did not allow its own space,” saysLandau. Now Israeli art will be displayed both in the permanentexhibits on the ground floor and as part of the changing exhibitsupstairs. Half of the exhibits in the Fine Arts Wing will be shown forthe first time, including a painting by 19th century artist GustaveCourbet, a painting by Alberto Giacometti, a monumental sculpturecalled “The Boy from South Tel Aviv” by Israeli Ohad Meromi, and twocommissioned pieces: a large outdoor installation by Anish Kapoor andan installation by Olafur Eliasson consisting of 300 paintings in thesuccessive colors of the rainbow, titled “Whenever the RainbowAppears,” which will greet visitors in the new entry gallery.
The Samuel and Saidye Bronfman Archaeology Wing, organizedchronologically from prehistory through the Ottoman Empire, willhighlight subjects in ancient Israeli archaeology according to themes,as well as showcasing the treasures of neighboring cultures, such asEgypt, the Near East, Greece, Rome and the Islamic world.
“The Youth Wing amazingly connects to archaeology in the Byzantinegallery where the three monotheistic faiths begin with the samemonotheistic roots and then begin their divergent iconography andtheology,” says museum director Snyder, “so all those kids coming inwill see that their divergent faiths all come from the same sourcematerial.”
When Israel captured East Jerusalem in the 1967 war, it gained controlof the Rockefeller Archaeological Museum, which now functions as anoff-site location of the Israel Museum, as does the historic TichoHouse in downtown Jerusalem, where contemporary art is exhibited.
Snyder notes that given its history of the not-always-smooth merging ofart and archaeology, as well as its other unique features, “there usedto be an axiom that the museum is many museums under one roof.” Butwhen he took a professional look at it as a newcomer, he said, “youknow what? It’s actually one museum that has the potential to tell thenarrative of the material culture and the visual culture from the firstmoment a million years ago to the present of this region of the worldand cultures worldwide.”
“And I thought to myself that this was an amazing place that did not need to be remade, it only needed to be redressed.”