Aesthetic interconnection

As the Israel Museum winds up its campus renewal project, director James Snyder divulges ‘what makes a cultural place.'

James Snyder 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
James Snyder 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Israel Museum director James Snyder believes that first and foremost there must be beauty. For a museum, this means balancing between the collections’ content, the building’s architecture and the location’s setting. When properly arranged, the result is what Snyder calls a “strong and successful cultural place.”
“I came to see the museum when asked to be its director [in 1996],” says Snyder, who before that had been neither to the museum nor to Israel. He was struck by how much realized and unrealized potential it had amassed in only 31 years. “I entered the front, ascended the promenade and thought: This is perhaps the strongest, most powerful cultural place – with its hybrid of Modernist architecture, the breadth of its collection and the site on which it was built.”
At the time, Snyder was asking the question of “what makes a cultural place” as a Loeb Fellow at the Harvard School of Design. He says he went home after his first trip seeing a remarkable potential which, if redone properly, could be the most powerful museum space anywhere. And since his contemplation of the makings of a cultural space coincided with the beginning of his tenure at the Israel Museum, he also had a chance to directly explore and implement his theories.
The first of these was to reconsider a project initiated before his arrival for razing a wooded area in the middle of the campus’s art garden and replacing it with a visitors’ pavilion. The time he spent studying this earlier project – which was eventually scrapped – gave Snyder the opportunity to crystallize the idea of what a proper redress should be.
“It had to strengthen and reinforce the power of the original with a proper entryway to move to a central point from which [a visitor] could access the galleries,” he explains. He further describes it as a “continuous unfolding” of “content from ancient to modern” eras.
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In a way, the current campus renewal project – which is being completed with a budget of $100 million within a 30-month construction period – is actually the development of his thesis as a Loeb Fellow: the reordering or renewing of cultural places without destroying the old and building something new from scratch. In his words, “It’s all about making use of realized and unrealized potential.”
In the case of the Israel Museum, this means doubling the size of the collection galleries to 20,000 square meters with the addition of a single gallery entrance pavilion in the heart of the original complex of buildings, along with a revamped entry-point featuring several new pavilions for admission, information, food and retail totaling around another 7,000 sq.m. The restaurant will now overlook not the parking lot but the picturesque Valley of the Cross.
THE NEW buildings were designed by New York-based architect JamesCarpenter, who took into account the museum’s original modular languagewhile developing a signature of his own. Snyder was interested inworking with Carpenter precisely because he wanted the project to allowthe architect to develop his architectural language – one that focuseson transparency, translucency and light. In the case of the museum, ithas resulted in large glass pavilions shaded by a system of glazedterra-cotta louvers (angled slats) which let in light from the northand south, and protect against direct sunlight from the east and west.
Carpenter also designed the connection between the museum entrance andthe gallery entrance – an above-ground promenade under which willstretch a wheelchair-accessible, climate-controlled “route of passage.”These will lead to a central cardo where the museum’s various wings –including the Edmond J. and Lily Safra Fine Arts Wing, the Jack, Josephand Morton Mandel Wing for Jewish Art and Life (previously Judaica andJewish Ethnography) and the Samuel and Saidye Bronfman Archeology Wing,as well as the auditorium and a new 1,000-sq.m. temporary exhibitionspace – will all be accessible from a single point.
This notion underscores the importance of flow behind thereorganization of the museum’s indoor galleries – work carried out byTel Aviv-based firm Efrat-Kowalsky Architects, whose founding partnerZvi Efrat is head of the Department of Architecture at the BezalelAcademy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem. Of particular note is the waythat the Jewish Art and Life Wing, which now ends with Bezalel-eracostumes and jewelry, moves directly into the Israeli art section ofthe Fine Arts Wing.
“Art in Israel began with Bezalel,” recalls Snyder, “which drew onEuropean culture while focusing on objects and images of Jewish life indifferent world traditions.”
He explains that the museum is taking a more synthetic view of secularand sacred aspects of Jewish life. One way of channeling the scope ofthese traditions, for example, is through the transportation andreconstruction of an 18th-century, carved-wood synagogue donated by theJewish community of Suriname in South America. The exhibitions includesa floor covered by white sand representing the ancient Jews’ years ofwandering through the desert, as well as the sound-muffling techniqueused by crypto-Jews to hide their footsteps during secret prayermeetings.
The Israel Museum, Snyder emphasizes, is a mix, on the one hand, ofarchitecture and landscape and, on the other, of art and archeology.“When I arrived and began talking to people, they all told me that [theIsrael Museum] was many museums under one roof,” he says. “But the realpoint is that it’s one amazingly universal museum.”
Initially, the museum’s comprehensiveness made Snyder think twice aboutbecoming its director. As someone interested in the modern period ofart – “the point when moral content dropped out of visual art and wasreplaced with formal or visual content” – for him the past started at1850 and looked forward from there. “I wondered whether I was qualifiedto run a place with a lot of material that predated this point.” Butthen he realized that it actually opened the floodgates to all thesources of modernism.
The reorganization of the museum helps to bring these connections tothe forefront. “If you start at archeology with objects that are over amillion years old and meander over to modern art,” he reflects, “youknow intuitively that you’ve absorbed the experience of materialobjects that connect regardless of time and space.”
THE KEYWORD here is “intuitive.” Snyder believes that the beauty of acultural place is passed through “subliminal input,” that the visitorcan appreciate its beauty through details which are not alwaysregistered by the conscious mind.
According to him, coming to the museum is not only about being guided,oriented and educated – which is also important – but just as muchabout people benefiting and absorbing a positive response from the“synthetic beauty of material culture”: art, archeology, architecture.And he adds that this should be possible whether the visitor spendstime at the museum formally or informally.
Discussing the museum’s key architectural elements – Alfred Mansfeld’soriginal modular complex of buildings, Frederick Kiesler’s Shrine ofthe Book and Isamu Noguchi’s Art Garden – Snyder points out that thesite is infused with the beauty of modern sensibility. “For the averagevisitor,” he adds, “something about this landscape connects tocontemporary time. And yet not far away is a 3,000-year-old city that’sstill alive.”
Connecting the two conceptually is the model of Second Temple-eraJerusalem relocated from the Holyland Hotel in Bayit Vagan to a sitenext to the Shrine of the Book.
“The museum campus is at the top of several thousand years of culturaland material history,” muses Snyder, “and then you enter [itscollections] and see objects dating back a million years.” Thecuratorial message inside the redesigned museum is similar: All thingsconnect. Or, looked at another way, if there is an entryway into themuseum’s collection based on personal experience or interest, it can beused to connect with subjects that are less familiar.
“Even if someone never uttered the word ‘aesthetic’ before,” saysSnyder, “they can relate to the aesthetic architectural landscapebecause it’s of their time. This opens the door to a whole world ofcultural richness that you might never have thought of before.”
Snyder reiterates that the whole point of reordering the campus was totap its potential – “a pinpoint center which allows [the visitor] tofilter out to the richness of the preexisting.”
“I’m a big believer in landscape,” says Snyder. “And the most importantthing to do is to touch the landscape in a positive way.” It seems tohim that with “serendipitous vision, Teddy [Kollek] seized the locationand managed to pull together the elements to create what might be themost powerful cultural place on earth.”