Not your average museum

The Eretz Israel Museum is a virtual treasure house of conventional - and unconventional - exhibits.

vintage phones 248.88 (photo credit: Carl Hoffman)
vintage phones 248.88
(photo credit: Carl Hoffman)
Fortunate indeed is the family graced with an elderly, elegant, eccentric maiden aunt. This is the aunt whom the family's children love to visit because of her appealingly odd personality and her rambling old apartment crammed with fascinating things to look at and touch.
The aunt, it seems, has been everywhere, and enraptures her visitors with anecdotes of lassoing wild horses with Texas cowboys and drinking mares' milk in Mongolia. Her residence reflects her persona. Wherever one turns, there are china cabinets filled with everything from eggs made of crystal to the tusks of wild boars; coffee tables groaning under the weight of more than 200 miniature laughing Buddha figurines or intricately decorated sailing ships in antique glass bottles; walls covered with framed photographs of long-ago excursions to Bali, Botswana and Machu Picchu. End tables are festooned with daguerreotypes of mid-19th-century ancestors whose identities even the aunt does not know, along with Wedgwood bowls brimming with coins from pre-World War II Japan.
The place is a virtual treasure house, arranged according to the whim of its unconventional occupant, and every visit there is an adventure.
The Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv is the eccentric maiden aunt of Israeli museums. Spread across a sprawling expanse of hills and gardens at the edge of the Tel Aviv University campus in Ramat Aviv, the museum is actually a complex of several large theme pavilions, offering an impressive assortment of indoor exhibits that include ancient ceramics, glass, coins and metallurgy, as well as a network of paths that wind their way past several much smaller pavilions and outdoor exhibits. The small pavilions display reconstructions of ancient olive presses and flour mills; the outdoor exhibitions feature everything from Mameluke and Ottoman-period drinking fountains to 20th-century railroad cars.
Although purportedly dedicated to the archeology and history of the land of Israel, the museum also features a planetarium for a non-historical glimpse of our galaxy.
HOW DID this eclectic mix of attractions come into being? According to spokeswoman Miri Tzdaka, 37, the Eretz Israel Museum began in 1953 as an on-site exhibition of the archeological excavations of Tel Qasile, a Philistine port city that flourished along the Yarkon River from the 12th to the 10th centuries BCE. Among the first archeological sites unearthed within the new State of Israel, excavation at Tel Qasile was started in 1948 by Prof. Benjamin Mazar. Subsequent excavations on three Philistine temples, built one on top of the other, were conducted in 1971-1972.  The Eretz Israel Museum grew around the Tel Qasile excavations, which continue to be a focal point and major attraction of the museum.
The main pavilions are clustered not far from the entrance to the complex at Rehov Haim Levanon 2. First, however, the visitor passes a vintage 1917 fire engine, rescued from a junk heap and lovingly restored at the instigation of Ilan Cohen, current director of the museum.
The ceramics and glass pavilions are extensive, offering comprehensive displays of objects from this area's successive historical periods. The Ceramics Pavilion tells the story of Neolithic people's discovery that fired clay becomes watertight; the introduction of pottery; and the evolution of pottery designs and functions. The pavilion also contains a reconstruction of a biblical-period home. The popular Glass Pavilion features rare and beautiful objects from 3,000 years of glass-making, from its introduction to Israel in the 15th century BCE through the Medieval era.
The Kadman Numismatic Pavilion features an extensive collection of coins from all of the country's historical periods, right up until today, as well as bank notes, certificates and other marginalia, like weights.
The museum's eclecticism continues at the Postal History and Philately Pavilion. Here, in the midst of a fine exhibit of historically significant 19th-century stamps, letters and postcards  of which any museum would be proud, stands a shiny, red, mid-1950s postal delivery van - waxed, polished and gleaming with spotless whitewall tires. A few feet away is a collection of vintage rotary telephones from the 1930s and '40s, not far from the printing press that produced some of Israel's first postage stamps.
Also housed in this building is "The Secret History of Tel Aviv," an exhibition outlining Tel Aviv's little-known archeological history, with pictures of ancient ruins in remote corners of the city. A true museum junkie could spend an entire afternoon in this one building and go home happy.
Not to be missed, however, are the Nehushtan Pavilion and the Man and His Works Center. The former is a cleverly-designed restoration of an ancient copper mine, with special emphasis on recent findings from the Timna archeological site. Man and His Works attempts to recreate the industries and crafts of ancient Israel, with reconstructed workshops and extensive displays of ancient tools. The Ethnography and Folklore Pavilion is also a popular exhibit, displaying a diverse array of arts, crafts, costumes and ritual objects from Jewish communities around the world.
From there, the trail leads outward through the sprawling back gardens and sometimes surprising outdoor exhibits. Although this calm oasis in the middle of the city draws fewer visitors than the big pavilions, there are a lot of cool things to see out there. These include a reconstructed olive press, a wine press and a flour mill. Especially interesting are the two huge Ottoman-period drinking fountains, similar to those that dotted the landscape during the 13th-19th centuries.
At the end of this garden path lies what is perhaps the museum's best-known exhibit: the Roads and Railroads Site. This consists of two small green locomotives, a wooden boxcar, a server locomotive and a recently repainted passenger car, complete with a "streamlined" rounded rear-end.  Even those who have never been to or heard of the Eretz Israel Museum may recognize these objects, as they are all plainly visible from Namir Road, a major artery into and out of Tel Aviv.
ACCORDING TO Tzdaka, a lot of the quirky eclecticism of this museum can be traced to the late Rehavam Ze'evi. Although better known as a Knesset member and tourism minister, "Gandhi" Ze'evi was also the Eretz Israel Museum's hands-on chairman of the board from 1981 to 1991. Deciding to breathe some new life into the place, Ze'evi was particularly interested in making it child-friendly. That, says Tzdaka, accounts for the planetarium, which Ze'evi built to delight young audiences. It also accounts for the railroad cars, which were to be part of an outdoor transportation exhibition featuring a full array of antique cars, trucks, buses, boats and, of course, trains.
"But unfortunately, it didn't happen," says Tzdaka. "The railroad cars were as far as he got."
Always a popular destination for school groups - no fewer than nine busloads came and went during our three-hour visit - the museum is becoming increasingly popular among the general population as well, thanks to more aggressive marketing, and the addition of new permanent and temporary exhibits.
An example of the latter is the currently running "Tel Aviv: White City, Dark Days." Through an extensive collection of compelling photos, documents and other memorabilia, this exhibit documents the natural and man-made calamities that have struck the city since its founding in 1909. One can see Tel Aviv's inhabitants struggling with wars, riots, forced evacuations, floods, fires and terror attacks. What is most impressive is the city's resilient determination to get back to its feet each time it is knocked down.
Another successful strategy for the museum has been its staging of huge, family-oriented activities during the summer. Examples of these were two colorful Chinese culture festivals held at night on the museum grounds a few years ago, complete with large souvenir arcades and Chinese food stalls.
What's planned for this summer? Tzdaka smiles and says, "Let's let it be a surprise."
Information about the Eretz Israel Museum's hours, prices and activities is available at