‘Radiating a message of culture’

Israel Museum director James Snyder discusses its reopening this week following major renovations.

Sculpture 311 (photo credit: Michael Friedson)
Sculpture 311
(photo credit: Michael Friedson)
When legendary Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek inaugurated the Israel Museum in 1965, his vision was that the Jewish state offer a world class repository of art and archaeology prominently featuring its culture. In 1997, the Israel Museum accelerated its climb toward becoming a world class institution when James Snyder, then the deputy director of Manhattan’s Museum of Modern Art, was given the reigns. Innovative exhibits from all over the world began appearing in the museum bolstering the Israel Museum’s own exhibits and unique collections, while Israel’s own treasures began to visit the world’s premier museums.
Snyder is about to relaunch the Israel Museum following a three-year, $100 million facelift and reconstruction program.
He discussed the museum’s relaunch and the vision behind it as final preparations for the gala were underway.
So, James, which came first: The $100 million vision or the $100 million budget?
Well, I’ll tell you something: the first time I came to see the campus of the museum was when I was asked to become director. I knew the museum because of its world reputation. In a very short period of time – 31 years – the museum had become one of the strongest encyclopaedic museums worldwide and with a very strong and active program in modern and contemporary art, which are my own fields.
When I came to Jerusalem and I stepped on the campus, I was just astonished at the beauty of the place and the way that art and archaeology and landscape and architecture synthesized to create a place that said, “this is about culture,” was something that I felt was really special.
Oddly, I had a vision that day to take the museum from the potential it clearly had to a higher level that would really be about showing how here, perhaps more than any other museum setting anywhere else in the world, you could make a statement about universality and material culture, starting from the beginning of time and coming to the present. And in a way, the project that we are completing now is the realizing of what that first spontaneous vision is about.
What does $100 million get you?
That’s also a good question. We are at the tail end of an age where museum expansions or museum redevelopments or new museum development projects have cost many multiples of that number and in a way, we set out to demonstrate that you can make a complete and transforming change to the public face of the museum and only spend $100 million. In our case, what this will do is allow us to double our collection galleries from 100,000 square feet to 200,000 square feet and then add approximately 100,000 square feet of new construction devoted to entry, visitor services and movement through the campus.
When you arrived on the scene in 1997, I suspect you knew that much of what you inherited had to go at some point. What was your tipping point and when did your vision become a work in progress? What were the priorities in creating that new plan?
It’s very amazing. Teddy was a visionary. On the other hand, Teddy was not a long-range planner. Teddy actually pulled together all the pieces of the museum in a kind of serendipitous way and it worked. The main campus designed by Russian-born, German-trained Bauhaus-trained émigré to Palestine, Al Mansfeld; combined with the Shrine of the Book, designed by Frederick Kiesler, an Austrian émigré to the U.S.; and the Billy Rose Art Garden, designed by Isamu Noguchi, a Japanese émigré to the West Coast of the US. Three different kinds of modernism all informed by sources in different parts of the world, all brought together on this campus in 1965. So for us, it wasn’t about throwing anything away. It was about realizing the amazing quality of the original bones of the original architectural heritage of the place and building on that legacy. So in fact, our project is much about we call a "renewal." We call it that because the project isn’t about taking everything down and starting from scratch. It’s really about building upon the vision of the bones of the original.
How did your wish list take shape?
I would say in a kind of organic way. We didn’t do this immediately. I arrived in 1997 and we spent five or six years – we really passed the museum’s 40th anniversary pushing the pre-existing campus to its limits. At that point, we saw what the real strengths of the campus were; what the real quality of its original architecture was all about. It’s not that there was a “wish list” per se. There was just an idea to redress the campus, to reorder the way you move through the beauty of the pre-existing place.
So that you could bring out the strength of character of that place and reorder its interior so that you could really experience the unfolding of material culture from the start of time until today.
Give me a visual example.
Well, it’s an amazing thing. Jerusalem is a unique city in that it’s built from its own bedrock, as we all know. So the Israel Museum, clad in Jerusalem stone but built of glass, steel and other materials, sits on a hilltop that is Jerusalem stone and we actually excavated 1,000,0000 cubic feet of Jerusalem stone so as to order the plan and reengineer the plan within the original and preexisting envelope of the campus. The changes, in a way, that we made are surgical. When we are all finished, you will see and feel the aura of the essence of the original modernist idea of this place as a modernist that is modern backdrop for showing the history of material culture from the start of time to the present moment.
It’s a curious thing. It’s a thrilling thing. Now, as you arrive here, we have formalized the entry. We have made a more clear path from the front of the campus to the heart of the campus.
But now, unlike before, you will stand at the heart of the museum and you will be able to turn around 360 degrees and you will see the entrances to our collections for archaeology; Jewish art and life; the Western fine art traditions; the non-Western fine art traditions; our main auditorium; and our main temporary exhibitions galleries—all in a main 360 degree turn from the heart of the museum, from a place we now call the Cardo.
How many visitors enter the museum on an annual basis?
It’s fascinating. Prior to the start of the second intifada, our attendance was moving up toward 1 million visitors a year. The second intifada changed that dramatically and we fell to about 300,000 visitors a year.
Now, I would hasten to add that a city with 700,000 residents in a country with 6 or 6.5 million residents, that’s not a small number of visitors. And yet, postintifada, our attendance was primarily local and on the order of 300,000 to 400,000 a year. In the last two years, during which 90 percent of the campus has been under reconstruction, we’ve actually had an average of 500,000 visitors a year, which is remarkable.
Can you break down the demographics of where these people are coming from for the most part?
I would say 50 percent are local and we have a very, very loyal local audience from Jerusalem and its surrounding environs; and 50 percent is worldwide.
Israeli-Jew and Israeli-Arab?
Absolutely. The museum is really about intercultural resonance and inter-communal engagement and our audience reflects that. Our audience is really a mirror of that, not just in our local attendance where it is as much as about every community that lives and works around Jerusalem, but we see it in our international traffic. It’s great.
What do you anticipate in terms of traffic with this new renovation?
We’ll see. We are not about politics but our attendance is, of course, influenced by how the country sits in the eyes and minds of the rest of the world. So if we are in a calm, international environment, our attendance should continue to grow dramatically the way that tourism in Israel has continued to grow in the past few years.
You helped personally to grow MOMA, the Museum of Modern Art, and you had a vision: a $60 million campaign to help enhance what they built there. How has that experience helped you in this current experience, this three-year $100 million renovation?
 It’s funny – that experience is now almost a quarter of a century ago but what it did teach me was the importance of creating cultural places of strength, of soul and of spirit.
When you build a cultural place, it’s not just about making a building. And in a funny way, our project isn’t about making a building.
Our project is about strengthening the power of the character of this place and making sure it radiates a message of culture. I did learn that at MOMA. MOMA is really the fountainhead of modernism in my own field – my academic field is modernism – and really even here, where of course we are dealing with cultures that are ancient and are part of a continuum that begins in prehistory, before ancient times and comes to the present. But it’s still about modernism. It’s about our own moment in time. When I was at MOMA, my focus was at beginning at the origins of modernism and looking ahead, and now what I realize is that if you take modern and contemporary moments, they really sit on the crust of a long history of material culture, which is what this place is all about.
James, it wasn’t long after you arrived in the nineties that the Israel museum was clearly expanding its horizons so that the art, archaeology and culture of the region was supplemented by exhibits on loan from other museums. How were those selections made?
When you’re an encyclopedic museum, the world is your oyster in a way because you can think about how works of art from different cultures and from different periods of time and history can be juxtaposed in ways that are really resident or illuminating. I would say in years that we developed our exhibition program we were always in thinking about what we have here and how that can be amplified, clarified or stimulated by bringing material by other parts of the world. Then what happened here is quite interesting.
Our collections comprise 500,000 things. The oldest object is a million years old. We begin a million years ago.
We come to the present moment with a very active program in collecting in contemporary art.
We collect the cultures of this region of the world, we collect the cultures of all other regions of the world. We realized several years ago that more important than bringing loans from elsewhere was surfacing the quality of the material we have ourselves.
In the last five years, we have refocused our attention to making exhibitions – major exhibitions – using our own material and then circulating those exhibitions worldwide. In the last two years while our reconstruction program has been ongoing, I think we circulated exhibitions to 19 venues on four continents worldwide from the Israel Museum.
It’s really a great thing to look at my table: I have a stack of exhibition books from countries in South America, North America, Europe and Asia; in Portuguese, in Italian, in Danish, in Turkish. In this past year, which has been a challenging year in terms of politics and diplomatic relations between Israel and Turkey, the Israel Museum presented an exhibition of Chagall from the Israel Museum collections at the Pera Museum in Istanbul and it was a blockbuster.
Do you think you could do that today?
I suspect that we could. This was just within the last six months. And to have on my table a book on Chagall from the Israel Museum in Turkish is a really thrilling thing. Our exhibition was Chagall from the Israel Museum for the first time in Turkey. Chagall was not a familiar artist to Turkish audiences.
The one-million-year-old oldest artifact that is housed at the Israel Museum. What is it?
It’s a funny thing. Of course, archaeology here is almost entirely about the indigenous archaeology of the ancient land of Israel. We have some material from other parts of the world, or that came from the marketplace, but most of what we have is documented to the source of excavation.
The oldest thing we have, which is a million years old, is a set of elephant bones, and the evidence of the implements that were used to hunt and dismember an elephant.
It’s not so much archaeology as it is anthropology but it is an indication of the hand of man touching material culture. And then you jump to 325,000 years ago and we have in the collection a small basalt pebble-like fertility goddess that was carved with the flint that was considered not by us, but by the academic world as the oldest object sculpted by the hand of man. And then you jump to 20,000 years ago, when the collections here really begin with the first objects that demonstrate the notion of existential reflection and material culture.
Beautiful river stones with faces carved in them. From that point on, from 20,000 years ago to through the Ottoman empire, it’s a continuum of material culture reflecting man’s thinking about himself and about life and later about polytheism, about monotheism, about Judaism and then formative Christianity and Islam, and finally to the flowering of Ottoman culture from this part of the world to the East and the West.
What new additions are to be unveiled?
Many. I can’t even begin to enumerate the amazing new things you’ll see there.
Give me an example of what the public is going to see.
We’ve doubled and reinstalled all of the collection galleries of the museum. In great part, this is really about surfacing the strength of what we already have but we also have amazing new highlights. In archaeology for example, you’ll see from the Crusader Period, a very rare fresco from the tomb of St. Mary in Gethsemane.
And you’ll see a magnificent, 17 th- century Ottoman period Mihrab, prayer niche from Isfahan. In Jewish Art and Life, we will be displaying for the first time some of our great treasures of illuminated manuscripts including the magnificent late 15th- century copy of the Mishneh Torah of Maimonides (Rambam) that was written and illuminated in Northern Italy. As you know, we have had in our collection, in Jewish Art and Life, synagogue interiors from three synagogues: two in Europe and one in Asia.
One from Italy, one from Germany and one from Cochin in Southern India. We’ve now added a fourth, which is from one of the earliest synagogue communities in South America in Paramaribo in Suriname, a magnificent early 18th-century complete synagogue interior in Suriname.
So now our synagogue collections cover Europe, Asia and the Americas. It’s remarkable and unique. In the fine arts, we have works of art that we are adding in all categories. In contemporary art, which as I’ve said, is kind the crust of this long timeline of material culture, we’re opening our galleries with an exhibition called “Still Moving,” which in a way is on the subject of slow movement in contemporary art, but of course, it’s also a play on words because it’s about continuing to move ahead and the fact that we are still moving. That exhibition includes nearly 30 recent acquisitions in contemporary art which will be highlights of the exhibition, again, sitting on the crust of material culture.
Glad you brought that up—looking ahead, kids come from schools from all over the country to visit the Israel Museum. Is there anything innovative that you have envisioned specifically for children?
For children, we are of course developing programs, guidelines and ways for them to experience and put their arms around the notion of the history of material culture, all in one site and setting. I have a little bit of a dream that children will start to come here once a week and every week for 52 weeks of the year; that they’ll tackle a different moment along that timeline. So that over the course of the year, they can start at the beginning and end today.
And year after year, they can come back and cut that sequence of experiences in many different ways and over time really come to have a sense of the roundness of world culture.
The Israel Museum has almost an equal number of volunteers as the number of those who are employed by the museum. To what do you attribute this number?
I’d say several things. First, I’d say that our 350 volunteers are treasures of our collections, the way that our collections are treasures of the collections. A lot of people retire to Jerusalem from all over the world and they have time and energy and it’s really great and we’re a magnet for them. And they do everything. They are our face to our public. They work at the information desk. They work as guides. They work in the offices and it’s really a great resource.
How many workers did you employ during the three-year reconstruction period and where did they come from?
Well, we kept our own staff very busy publishing books, making exhibitions and designing and installing the new galleries. The construction project, probably at its peak, employed about 400 workers who came from a total of seven countries. It was really amazing.
We feel that we sit at the center of the universe here so when you do a project like this and your construction teams come from all over the world, it’s really a great reflection of what our essence is about.
And I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask about the funders. Where are they from and how do you raise $100 million?
The museum is really supported by the world and we have an international council which is just a remarkable enterprise worldwide. We have organizations formally in 14 countries and we have friends all over the globe.
Everything that happens here happens because of what all of those friends feel about the museum and about the extent to which they believe in the museum and are committed to what we do. Our campus project is funded in an interesting way. Again, we didn’t build a building.
We renewed a campus. We decided to make it a collective initiative and I think 21 friends and family and foundations from all over the world contributed gifts of $5 million and $10 million to make possible this transformative change of this place.
With your three-year renovation complete, what does James Snyder have at his command which he didn’t have between 1997 and 2010?
We don’t think in those terms. We always think that we have the resource that is the great potential of this place. Perhaps with this project we have taken ourselves one step closer to realizing the potential of this place.
We hope we have given it a bit more clarity, made it a bit more beautiful but really what this place is about is all of that richness. If we sat on a landscape of beauty and cultural concentration and cultural intensity, hopefully we are sitting on that landscape with the sense all the more so of the power of that place.
When you think of all of the great art institutions of the world, The Metropolitan Museum; MOMA; the Louvre; the Prado – where does the Israel Museum take its place and how do you compare it to the museums of the Middle East?
I’m not sure I’m the one to answer that question but I must say there’s something quite special about being an encyclopaedic museum that is being a universal museum that sits on a hilltop surrounded by the majesty of Jerusalem. It really does make us stand apart from all of those other great museums by virtue of universalism that we have and by virtue of the location of where we sit at the heart of the universe.
Is there any encounter over the current years that you have been at the helm of the Israel Museum in the political arena that has been problematic?
I think we really demonstrate the point that culture is exactly not about politics. We are fortunate in that respect but really what I want to say is that we are really not about politics. Our 20 acres are the state of the Israel Museum and it’s just remarkable in how the world respects that and that what we do is really about the message of intercultural connection, inter-communal connection and universal connection and it’s really what makes us great and what makes us special.
What do you do in your spare time, James?
I run the Israel Museum and it’s a pleasure and a privilege.