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The Israel Museum’s impressive $100 million renovation awkwardly attempts to redefine the Jewish world

Matthew Fishbane
August 12, 2010
Tim Hursley, courtesy of The Israel Museum, Jerusalem
"Turning the World Upside Down," a new, site-specific sculpture by Anish Kapoor created for the Israel Museum.Tim Hursley, courtesy of The Israel Museum, Jerusalem
Tim Hursley, courtesy of The Israel Museum, Jerusalem
"Turning the World Upside Down," a new, site-specific sculpture by Anish Kapoor created for the Israel Museum.Tim Hursley, courtesy of The Israel Museum, Jerusalem

James Snyder, director of the Israel Museum since 1997 and overseer of its recent $100-million renovation, repeated several times over the course of a two-day press junket in Jerusalem last month that his institution offers nothing short of “an intuitive experience of 1 million years of material culture.” If this description sounds a little blissed out, it is also entirely in keeping with the museum’s hilltop location, which puts the museum on par with the Knesset and the Supreme Court. The site on which the Israel Museum stands was chosen in the 1960s in accordance with former Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek’s Greco-Roman vision of a capital crowned by the legislative, judicial, and cultural branches of national identity. Snyder’s “renewal” of the museum seeks to recast Kollek’s classical approach in even more exalted and transcendent terms. One of the museum’s two new site-specific commissions, Anish Kapoor’s 16-foot “Turning the World Upside Down, Jerusalem,” appears to lift the inverted museum and surrounding dry hills into the blue sky in a way that invites the viewer to experience the site as a universal state of mind rather than as an institution of the state. Like the sculpture, the renovations are beautiful. But what about the people they now reflect?

Since its founding in 1965, the Israel Museum has grown into the largest cultural institution in Israel, with an encyclopedic (Snyder prefers the word “universal”) collection of over 500,000 objects, including the most extensive holdings of Holy Land archeology in the world. As an independent nonprofit that receives only about 10 percent of its $25 million annual operating budget from the state, the museum is not required to respond to national directives, although it received $17.5 million in government “matching support” for its renovation, to complement the $80 million raised from 20 private donors, most of whom live in New York City. (The museum paid for a small group of U.S. journalists, including me, to visit Jerusalem in mid-July—providing our flights, lodging, and meals—so that we might help get the word out.) The museum’s donor base, Snyder said, makes it more like the Met than like the Smithsonian or National Gallery. He is proud, as is a good portion of the Israeli press, that the renovation was completed on time and under budget, with a design that respects and enhances Kollek’s vision of a temple of high Western Art shaped by the specificity of its ethnographic origins and able to tap international networks for support.

Considering the many pressures on such a renewal project—political, financial, and cultural—Snyder, a white-haired, professorial director, could have easily turned Kollek’s old fashioned grandeur into a turgid mess. Instead, he brought in architect James Carpenter after reading a New York Times article praising his proposed fluid galleries connecting Santiago Calatrava’s transportation hub in lower Manhattan to already existing subway structures. Where the old design of the museum required visitors to endure a sun-baked uphill trudge from the parking lot vaguely reminiscent of the approach to Masada, Carpenter excelled at moving people and light through space in ways that the Times called “at times, magical.” Carpenter’s relatively unknown firm further satisfied the need for something less than a signature statement and more of a craftsman-like subordination to what was already there—a challenging task in a place like Jerusalem, where signature architectural statements abound and ideas about what was already there can be casus belli.

By most any measure, though, Carpenter’s adaptation—built by Chinese, Russian, and Palestinian laborers—is a success. What was once an austere jumble of concrete blocks meant to suggest an Arab village has been transformed into a spacious, easily navigable exhibit space, with clean lines, surprising views, and shade. Carpenter has added glass boxes shaded by transparent stacks of cast terracotta louvers to Alfred Mansfeld and Dora Gad’s original cement Modernist structures and, by displacing tons of Jerusalem stone and dirt, made it easier for old people and youth groups, who make up a majority of the visitors, to get up the hill. The semi-underground passage from the entrance pavilions to the central axis of the main galleries is fed natural light through prismatic glass and waterfalls. The effect is magical.

Inside, the sparely proportional aesthetic of the design firm Pentagram—refreshers of The Atlantic, the New York Jets football team, and other aging institutions struggling to keep up with changing times—has been brought to bear on the renewed Bronfman Archaeological Wing displays, which are now spare and well-proportioned. Where there was once a surfeit of decaying exhibits, there are currently 8,000 remarkable objects displayed, now properly lit, individuated, and tagged. Snyder considers himself “blessed with the privilege of interpreting the material culture” rather than obligated to put it all out there. As one curator put it, the redesign allows visitors to see much without looking at a lot.

The newly configured galleries lead visitors through a continuous, single narrative created out of carefully curated selections from the museum’s store of material objects and centered on a space dubbed the Cardo—the namesake for which, it could be noted, is the Roman remnant used now as the “center” of the Old City’s Jewish Quarter, not the physical center of the old city or the city of Jerusalem as a whole. From the Cardo visitors are shuttled into the three main galleries, one wing each for archeology, Jewish art and life, and fine art. Each series of galleries is laid out to encourage review of the collection in a single direction, and the effect of the narrative that is pressed on viewers is undeniably mind-blowing: Archeology takes us from a million-year-old set of wild bull horns, the “exodus from Africa,” and the dawn of civilization, through Canaan, Biblical Israel, Roman rule, Islamic conquest, and the Crusades (with minor detours for the “neighboring cultures” of Egypt, Greece, and a few others), and deposits us right at the door to Judaica. That gallery, in turn, transforms exceptional ceremonial objects in Jewish life into the standard-bearers of a culture at once apart but connected—the bridge between “the story toward one God” (as one curator described her archeological display) and the grand Western art-school narrative of art for art’s sake.

“It does give you a kind of subliminal, self-guiding unfolding,” Snyder said. Along the wall of the Cardo, at the entrance to the archeology wing, sits a 7th-century lintel from Galilee that features a Hebrew inscription from Deuteronomy 28 that neatly underscores the museum director’s point: “Blessed shall you be when you arrive, and blessed shall you be when you depart.”

What exactly lies between the twinned blessings of Deuteronomy and high modernism is hard to fathom. One thing that the framers of the museum’s narrative cannot be accused of is trading on the dead. A pair of odd videos describe Israel’s annual memorial holidays, with a brief mention of Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Day, but in general, save for a scattering of pieces of contemporary art, the Israel Museum steers clear of the Holocaust and Israel’s wars, the same way that New York’s Museum of Modern Art avoids un-aesthetic entanglements with negro slavery or the Civil War.

The narrative beyond the triumphant issuing-forth of Judaism into the history of Western fine art is remarkably ignorant and parochial. Africa, Rome, and Greece are mere back-story to the history of the Jews, who exist in all times and all places at the unmoving center of the world: “The Roman conqueror brought with him many cultural, political, and technological innovations. These blended in with the fabric of local life, but frequently fomented unrest.” Visitors will learn that Islam, Egypt, and the short-lived Christian Crusaders were accomplished, somewhat quaint, and ultimately defunct local cultures that “neighbored” or “influenced” the Jewish people. In the Iron Age, we’re told, swords were beaten into ploughshares—the importance of several thousand years of human history being reduced to a single prophetic aphorism. Nearby, Pentagram has used one of their signature lowercase pull quotes to decorate a display case with the motto “so goes humanity” in Hebrew, English, and Arabic, as if rehearsing for a future commission designing hip new make-up counters for the Body Shop.

While the museum’s lack of imagination about the rest of the world might in theory be explained or compensated for by a profound devotion to Jewish history and religious experience, that is not the case here. The museum presents splendid objects like a 15th-century Mishneh Torah from Northern Italy and a man’s hooded cape from the Atlas Mountains, but the manner of their presentation here strips them of the meaning of God or the practice of belief. Ritual objects are transformed into “ceremonial art” without the significance or the beauty of ceremony. There are kippahs, and there are 120 Hanukkah lamps from 15 countries, each neatly fetishized in individual glass vitrine, but not a single pair of tefillin, whose weird, strappy forms have nothing in common with the shiny polished metal forms of Brancusi and might raise questions about God and prayer that would clearly make the museum and its imagined audience uncomfortable. It is as if a Reform rabbi of yore had brought the pseudo-ecumenical, all-welcoming approach of the suburban temple of the 1960s to the modern pseudo-religion of the museum.

World Jewry is represented in comparative arrays of ceremonial and cultural objects and most notably in four beautifully restored synagogues from India, northern Italy, southern Germany, and, now, 18th-century Suriname, all reconstructed like the Met’s Temple of Dendur. Yet the way that these displays are framed makes it seem less like the scattering of Jews was the result of relentless persecution and more the work of a Greek-style god sowing plentiful Jewish seed in order to enrich the many lands of His creation. This ecumenical tone extends to the exhibit of a single exposed Torah scroll: Its explanatory card is titled, “What is a Torah?”

This effort at inclusion (Welcome, dear foreigner! We Jews are happy to explain who we are!) runs both ways, to comic effect. Where does Israeli art fit in the pantheon of Western Fine Art? Does work by Shahar Marcus belong next to a minor Jackson Pollock, dear reader? If the Shahar Marcus in question was a 2006 video of the Israeli artist “dropping” ingredients for a sabich onto a giant canvas-like pita, would that sway your opinion? A Giacometti leads to a 17th-century leopard head mask from Benin, which leads to Ohad Meromi’s “The Boy From South Tel Aviv,” a 20-foot-tall sculpture of a black-skinned naked youth that I imagine might have been commissioned by a brothel in Leipzig. And so it goes.

Right across from the broad entrance to the Edmund and Lily Safra Fine Arts Wing is a room for modern Israeli art that has been divided by its curator into its three walls, each with a theme. To the left is art using “Hebrew/Jewish symbols,” such as Mordechai Ardon’s “At the Gates of Jerusalem,” and to the right is art that explores “the Body and the Landscape.” But straight ahead, visible from almost the moment you enter the Cardo 100 yards away, is Yosef Zaritsky’s “Untitled,” from 1964, a pale green painting of pure abstraction. A search for something Jewish in that will be in vain.

The Israel Museum offers an answer, knowingly or not, to the fundamental questions that bring many tourists to Jerusalem in the first place. Who are the Jews? Where did they come from? What record is there of their historical presence, in these lands and elsewhere? What beautiful objects have they produced, and why? Of course, the question of who is a Jew—and, by extension, an Israeli—is hardly a settled one, and if a museum is throwing its institutional heft and $100 million behind an answer, it seems naïve at best to assert that there is nothing personal, political, controversial, painful, embattled, tense, moving, or unsettling about that.

Once press activities were over, I was free to roam Jerusalem for a day, and while my colleagues from art and architecture glossies and European dailies partook of the free guided tour of the Old City, I walked through the contested neighborhood of Silwan, where I couldn’t find a single person who had ever visited the Israel Museum. I then walked up the Mount of Olives to watch the sun set behind the Temple Mount. Below me were the thousands of graves of those who hope to be led through the Golden Gate upon the return of the Messiah. That’s when I thought that Mansfeld’s original design for the museum wasn’t based on an Arab village, as he said, but on the haphazard, boxy geometry of Hebrew tombs I was looking at, with their flat top slabs and stark devotional presence. Like the ancient bones within, the exhibits at the Israel Museum may represent millennia of history and yearning, but they have notably failed to come back to life.

Matthew Fishbane is Creative Director at Tablet magazine.