Rebirth of a Tel Aviv legend

After 32 years, Beit Hatfutsot is set to undergo massive renovations in structure and concept.

Warsaw Synagogue 521 (photo credit: courtesy of Issac Kaplan Old Ysihuv Court Museum)
Warsaw Synagogue 521
(photo credit: courtesy of Issac Kaplan Old Ysihuv Court Museum)
Leading a personal tour around his beloved Beit Hatfutsot, CEO Avinoam Armoni stopped in front of his favorite exhibit, a collection of model synagogues from around the globe – a crimson Beijing pagoda, the massive Warsaw shul and the starkly white Touro Synagogue from Newport, Rhode Island, among others.
“I’m already negotiating three new synagogue models,” he said. “We are about unity, not uniformity.”
The new models are just a small part of the changes that the Tel Aviv-based Beit Hatfutsot, known since its 1978 establishment as the Nahum Goldmann Museum of the Jewish Diaspora, is about to undergo in the next few years. A massive overhaul has already included an English name change to the Museum of the Jewish People and, in the future, will bring a transformation in historical scope and desired audience, in attempt to become more inclusive to the diverse world Jewish populations.
“This was one of the 20 best museums of the world,” said Armoni, who became CEO of the museum18 months ago. “The museum was very innovative in its approach as a historical museum, telling a story rather than showing exhibits.”
Yet while it remained a hub for Israeli and foreign tourists for more than two decades, the technology and the original inspiration for the exhibits have become obsolete, and Beit Hatfutsot began to see a substantial decline in visitors, according to Armoni. The museum went from having 400,000 visitors a year at its peak to 40,000 annually, he explained.
“Thirty-two years ago this was a phenomenal museum, but it started losing its visitors and gradually started getting into difficulties until it almost came to closure in 2002,” he said. “The novelty was no longer there. The technology was no longer relevant because technology by default becomes obsolete. But the main reason was that the museum became less relevant to visitors.”
While Nahum Goldmann, founder and former president of the World Jewish Congress, initially proposed the idea for Beit Hatfutsot, two of the entrepreneurs responsible for realizing his dream were Abba Kovner and theater director Jesaja Weinberg. Kovner – a ghetto fighter in Lithuania who came here and became a great poet, kibbutznik and educator – conceived the thematic approach of the museum, while Weinberg put their concepts into action.
“When he was asked to run Beit Hatfutsot, this was probably the first museum of the world that was seen by Weinberg as a stage. Normally, a museum is a place that is built upon a collection,” Armoni said. “Here, he said, ‘I have story.’ The museum would be a stage. The stage would not be chronological, it would be thematic.”
WEINBERG’S CONCEPT was so successful that he ended up on the steering committee for the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., and then worked as a consultant at the Jewish Museum in Berlin.
“The museum tries to answer the question of what is the secret of the survival of the Jewish people,” Armoni said. Its creators intended to cover a scope ranging from the time of the Second Temple’s destruction in 70 CE through the beginning of the Zionist movement. What was so novel about the exhibits was that they were among “the first examples of artifact-free” methods of telling a story at a museum.
“It was so successful, it was a must-see, must-visit place,” he said. But as times changed, so did the museum’s appeal, as Weinberg’s stage was really only a home to a narrow segment of the world’s Jewish community – the Ashkenazi European male.
However, despite its near collapse, the institution was saved by former Tel Aviv mayor Shlomo Lahat, who formed a coalition with its workers and was able to get prime minister Ariel Sharon to forbid its closure. But the museum had become less relevant because of the way the newest generations of Jews – in Israel and in the Diaspora – were growing up.
“When we grew up here, we were more or less indoctrinated that the only form of Jewish life should be here – that Zionism was the last chapter in the Jewish story,” Armoni said. “The Israeli youth and children looked down on Jews who had not made aliya and therefore expressed less interest in Jews in the Diaspora. They didn’t find the story of the Jews in the Diaspora relevant. At the same time, the Diaspora Jews who came here saw that this museum basically said that the final chapter at the end of the museum was the beginning is the Zionist movement, and they were not part of the story.”
Ideals have changed in the Jewish world, and people are becoming increasingly content to make their permanent homes in the Diaspora, something the Zionist movement had initially disputed, he explained.
And that’s where Armoni stepped in to make some changes.
Prior to his appointment as CEO, he had served on the museum’s board for three years. Before that, he worked as vice president for external relations of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, as New Israel Fund director, consultant to the Edmond J. Safra Foundation and an adviser to Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek.
“I did not see myself in the role of the CEO but rather as an involved lay leader,” Armoni said, emphasizing his own surprise that he ended up taking on the leadership role. “So on a personal basis. I also made a big transition.”
Since Armoni took office, the museum has seen major improvements. From 2009 to 2010 alone, he and his staff were able to increase the number of visitors by about 60 percent. Among these visitors have been tourists, school pupils, families, soldiers, new immigrants, foreign students and participants in birthright trips, he said. The museum has even developed a special curriculum for teachers who bring their students, a specific regimen for Taglit birthright participants and required material for soldiers in officer training courses. Within the same 2009 to 2010 time frame, Beit Hatfutsot has more than doubled its revenues, and this year has erected nine new exhibits.
But for Armoni, these major improvements do not suffice.
He plans to revamp the 17,000-square meter complex with NIS 165 million worth of renovations. He has already raised NIS 87m., which includes a government commitment to match NIS 40m. against philanthropic dollars, with the most significant contribution coming from Leonid Nevzlin of the Nadav Foundation. Nevzlin, who has been a major benefactor since the museum’s beginnings, has already pledged NIS 24m. Armoni said. Other donors include the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany and many individuals – mostly Israelis thus far.
“I know how to give money, and I know how to get money because I ran foundations and I raised money,” Armoni said. “Ever since I joined this place and ever since I joined this strategic process, I fell in love with the museum, with the mission of the museum, and I have to say I fell in love with Leonid Nevzlin, who really embodied the change. I found Leonid to be an absolutely unique human being. So I became more and more drawn into it.”
The museum already has an annual budget of about NIS 24m., about NIS 7m. of which comes from the government funds and NIS 7m. to NIS 8m. of which is raised philanthropically. The rest of the funds are acquired through museum revenues.
IN PRACTICE, the infrastructure overhaul has already begun. The board has approved a conceptual design for the new core exhibition and is in the final stages of selecting a master designer. Armoni will only that say he will be a world-class museum expert. An extensive search has led the board to narrow the candidates to four teams. These groups have designed some of the leading museums throughout the world.
“It is literally happening. You walk in, you see people working, you see the museum being transformed,” Armoni said.
The restructuring will be based largely around four changes, the first one being the new name and the subsequent fresh atmosphere that will take shape inside.
“By changing the name from the Jewish Diaspora to the Museum of the Jewish People, the historical scope of 70 CE to the beginning of the Zionist movement was changed,” Armoni said. “Today, the new museum starts with Abraham and Sarah and will not have an end chapter. We are not stopping at any particular time, and whoever comes to the museum, whether Jewish or not, will add his or her own story to the unique and ongoing story of the Jewish people.
“We hope that you will leave the museum with questions. As you go through, both you and the museum will change. This is the only museum in the world where you, the visitor, is part of the story, and without you, this museum cannot be.”
He stressed that the Museum of the Jewish People will not only be for Jews, as Jewish history has never been shaped by Jews alone.
“The key to Jewish survival is not because we lived in some kind of a vacuum,” he said. “Jews in Poland influenced Poland just as Poland influenced the Jews, and we cannot understand the story of the Jewish people without putting it in that context.”
The second major change involves redirecting the museum’s focus to include all Jewish populations, not merely the Eastern European Ashkenazi males who are the current focus.
“The museum will deal with all the kehilot – all the communities – of Jews throughout the world, and of course we’ll bring women into the museum,” Armoni said.
During The Jerusalem Post’s tour in late November, public relations director Assia Reuben gestured toward the exhibits on family, pointing out how everything is so male-oriented and really does not include women. For example, she demonstrated, the family here starts with the brit mila, and a placard just a few feet down reads “not bat mitzva but bar mitzva,” she said.
ASIDE FROM restructuring the historical layout and community inclusion, a third major change will involve the visual interpretation of the museum, which has largely been seen through Orthodox eyes.
“We are now deciding that the museum will be pluralistic. We are not taking a position, but we offer the whole wealth of Jewish expression and Jewish life,” Armoni said.
Integral to the visual perception will also be a fourth change – a complete technological overhaul of mechanisms that, while innovative in the 1970s, are entirely out of date now, Armoni explained.
Structurally, the set-up will include a new lobby, a café, three temporary exhibition halls and two auditoriums – with 250 and 100 seats – which will be home to lectures, music and other cultural events that are “synergistic with the mission of the place,” Armoni said. And rather than its current dark appearance, the new core exhibition will be very well lit.
“You leave the real world behind, and you start your journey,” Reuben said of the current exhibition entrance as she gestured toward the panoramic view of a palm tree-lined Tel Aviv University campus, which was quite bright in contrast to the museum’s somber aura. The new layout, which she expects to be fully functional in 2013 or 2014, will not provide such a contrast.
Yet while Beit Hatfutsot may be about to undergo a massive overhaul, its director promises that some key favorites will remain right where they are, such as his favorite miniature synagogue models.
The museum leadership has begun to implement its new strategies, and some visible changes can already be experienced by the public.
A NEW exhibit that focuses on the history of the Iranian Jewish community worldwide – a population largely excluded from the original museum – will open on December 31, curated by Hagai Segev and made possible through $700,000 in donations. “Light and Shadows: The Story of Iran and the Jews” will run through the end of April before heading off to the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, a city that boasts a huge Iranian Jewish community.
“The exhibition is going to be so phenomenal,” Armoni said. “It’s the first exhibition about the story of Persian Jewry. The budget is absolutely huge for such an exhibition, but the quality will be second to none.”
The exhibit’s story will begin with the first Jews exiled from Jerusalem by the Babylonians and continue through the present, including cultural artifacts as well as contemporary artwork by Iranian Jews living in Israel, Europe and the US.
Meanwhile, an international conference entitled “The Legacy of the Past and the Challenges of the Future” will take place on January 3-4 in conjunction with the exhibition and the Center for Iranian Studies at Tel Aviv University.
Just after, a new exhibit for families – “A B See Do: Adventures in Hebrewland” is slated to open in February, with an experimental phase for planned groups beginning in January. This huge gallery will feature an interactive space for children two through 12, who will learn the meaning of the Hebrew alphabet “as part of the element of survival of the Jewish people,” explained Armoni, through play and learning.
Curated by Tamar Hadar and Efrat Adiv, the gallery is unprecedented at Beit Hatfutsot, as it never had an exhibit for children.
“We want to allocate a space to deal with the history of Hebrew. It will open up a part of the museum to an audience that has never been here before – children,” Armoni said. “You can educate people by giving them experiences much better than hammering into their brains.”
In a huge, well-lit upstairs space, a construction team was hard at work building the exhibit.
Already underway for the past 18 months has been a partnership with the online family tree social networking site, which has helped revamp the existing database at the museum’s Douglas E. Goldman Jewish Genealogy Center, which is available to anyone who wants to use it for NIS 25. Among the database’s features is the ability to search for names with very flexible parameters, such as “sounds like” “synonym for,” demonstrated Haim Ghiuzeli, director of the database department.
Also available is the Memi De-Shalit Database of Jewish Family Names, which contains explanations for nearly 20,000 names.
“That’s the only place in the world that has a lexicon from Jewish communities all over the world,” Ghiuzelli said.
The computers also contain 700 films in English and Hebrew, which include rare footage, documentaries and silent films.
Such databases are Armoni’s number one priority, to help make the museum a completely digitalized resource for visitors. His goal is to make the collections and interactive versions of the exhibitions accessible to all on the Web.
“We are beginning to see the museum reborn in many ways,” he said.
Winding his way toward the top of the museum’s 32-year-old core exhibition, Armoni paused just before the exit and pointed to a sign. Mounted on the wall was an image of two hand prints, which read, “Why we ask you not to touch.” “This says ‘do not touch,’” he said.
“In the new museum, we will have signs that say ‘Please touch’ – because only if you touch will you connect.”