Beyond imagination

What does it mean for the Palestinian museum to stand empty?

The exterior of the National Palestine Museum in Bir Zeit (photo credit: MAX SCHINDLER)
The exterior of the National Palestine Museum in Bir Zeit
(photo credit: MAX SCHINDLER)
After two decades of arduous planning and delay, the national Palestinian Museum opened to fanfare and speech-making in the West Bank village of Bir Zeit last week.
Perched on a lush hillside 10 minutes north of Ramallah, the $24-million translucent limestone site – overlooking a grove of twisting olive trees and, on a clear day, the Mediterranean Sea – faces one small problem.
The museum stands hollow, with no opening exhibition scheduled for the compact 3,500 sq. m. site. Neither photography nor artwork adorns the museum’s walls, a boxy structure with angular black windows.
Its sheer emptiness makes a metaphor out of Palestinian history. Right-wingers may proclaim that “Palestinian” is a newfound, hollow construct, and left-wingers might recount the 1948 war – the physical void left by refugees.
As an imposing building, the museum possesses the trappings of a state cultural institution. Yet, the gallery stands hollow due to logistical and bureaucratic obstacles – specifically in obtaining building permits and importing nationalist antiques and relics, said Omar al-Qattan, the museum chairman.
“We’ve had so many knots.”
And for millions of Palestinian refugees who reside abroad, obtaining a West Bank visa to visit proves daunting.
That forced curators to improvise for future showings.
“These exhibitions will be mobile,” said Reem Abdul-Hadi, the museum spokeswoman. “We can take them to Lebanon, Jordan, the US, Europe – wherever Palestinians are. They’re in a digital and physical platform.”
The site’s Jerusalemite stone contours slope and glide in sync with the hilly contours, resembling its nationalist competitor 20 kilometers south, the Israel Museum in Jerusalem’s Givat Ram.
But despite the lack of objects inside, the outdoor terraced amphitheater provides a natural museum, a testament to the land. The sloping hillside is outfitted with drip-irrigated gardens guarding the site, in lieu of a security fence. On the patio, Qattan pointed toward the gardened shrubs below, full of cypress and citrus trees, evergreen herbs and grapevines descending into the valley.
“They tell their own story – a horticultural history of the country,” he said.
“The idea is that you proceed from nature to culture.”
Yet in an age of smartphones and Wikipedia, what is the purpose of a monumental national museum today? And why should Israelis care about a museum that legally they cannot visit, in Area A of the West Bank? Initially conceived in 1997 by the Welfare Association (Taawon) – an NGO funded by Palestinian exiles – the museum intended to depict Palestinian narratives on the War of Independence, or what they call the “Nakba,” Arabic for catastrophe.
The museum was to showcase the Nakba experience with artifacts and testimonials. Instead, the museum’s mission changed to reflect present-day Palestinian culture. Yet the museum’s inability to present any artwork casts doubt on the fledgling Palestinian nation- building project.
The inaugural exhibition, entitled “Never Part” was abruptly canceled last week, and a replacement exhibit for October 2016 has yet to be formulated.
On opening day, youth ushers clad in white blouses and navy pants milled around the atrium. Air-conditioning blasted at 18°. Sunlight beamed in from all directions. Yet no canvases hung from the walls and no books stood on the library’s shelves.
The museum’s void left many Palestinians bewildered at best or grasping for explanations.
“My grandmother was obsessed with heritage,” wrote Karim Kattan, the French-Palestinian curator of a Jericho art gallery. “She was one of the first to be so entranced by objects,” and she implored galleries worldwide to donate to the fledgling Bethlehem Museum.
Kattan compared the efforts of his grandmother, Julia Dabdoub, to the current museum curators. A political void has emerged, Kattan added, with right-leaning newspapers opposed to Palestinian nationalism relishing with schadenfreude.
The Jewish Press, for example, headlined its gallery critique, “What if they built a $24 million ‘Palestinian Museum’ and there was nothing to show?” Yet opening an empty museum may ring more powerfully than crowding artifacts and installing surround- sound speakers, Kattan argued.
“Absence is the crucial feature of our Palestinian-ness... Whatever the reason was that the museum opened with no exhibition, it seemed a fitting opening. There is nothing to see. It is a moment in time, a space where we can feel both proud and sad. It is a celebration and a dirge. It is our exile made manifest.”
Romanticizing the museum’s void is one critique. Another view takes into account how the museum’s director, Jack Persekian, announced his resignation last week. The current director, Mahmoud Hawari – who hails from the British Museum and is an expert on Islamic art – is so new that he told the Magazine that he didn’t even have a museum email address as of press time.
In the meantime, the museum hopes to start adding to its collection of physical objects hearkening back from Palestinian culture and history – a task that will take years.
“It’s remarkable that we’ve opened the building, at least, on time,” Qattan said.
Outside of the physical base in Bir Zeit, the museum intends to publish this summer an extensive audiovisual archive of thousands of photographs from Palestinian families both domestic and in the diaspora.
Five years from now, Qattan hopes that the museum will house archeology and film, to photography and house keys. He looks to the African- American Museum at the Smithsonian in Washington DC, which also opened without any collections, for inspiration and as a model.
“Here we have a marginalized and oppressed narrative that is starting to research and embrace itself,” Qattan said, breaking free of “viewing Palestinian history through the narrow lens of Zionism.”