Israel Museum in Jerusalem Reopens After $100 Million Renovation

After three years of renovation, the Israel Museum in Jerusalem reopened to the public on July 26, firmly reestablishing itself as Israel’s national museum and the most important repository of Jewish culture in the world.

Even during the museum’s closure, 500,000 people came each year to see the few spaces that remained open during the renovation: the Dead Sea Scrolls, displayed inside the white Shrine of the Book; the one-acre scale model of the Second Temple; and the Youth Wing.

The $100 million renovation, which required 400 workers from seven countries, revitalizes a campus that opened in 1965 on a hill opposite the Knesset. Originally designed by Alfred Mansfeld, an immigrant and Bauhaus-trained architect, the museum has, with this renovation, doubled its gallery space to 200,000 square feet, while preserving the external features of Mansfeld’s original modernist design. The interior meanwhile, has been completely redesigned.

“It wasn’t about throwing anything away. It was about realizing the amazing quality of the original bones of the original architectural heritage of the place and building on that legacy,” said James Snyder, the museum’s director since 1997. “Our project is a ‘renewal,’ ” Snyder said.

Many visitors had complained about the entry in the original plan, which required a long uphill walk outside to reach the galleries. The new design, by American architect James Carpenter, features an enclosed passage that connects the museum’s new entrance facilities to a new pavilion at the heart of the campus. Visitors may either walk up the museum’s refurbished Carter Promenade or enter through an enclosed route directly below the existing walkway.

Navigating the old museum could also be confusing, with galleries on several different levels and artifacts sometimes displayed in old-fashioned display cases.

Now, Snyder explained during a preopening tour, “You can stand at the heart of the museum and you will be able to turn around 360 degrees and you will see the entrances to our collections for archaeology; Jewish art and life; the Western fine art traditions; the non-Western fine art traditions; our main auditorium; and our main temporary exhibitions galleries.”

Security guard keeps watch over a menorah in the Mandel Wing for Jewish Art and Life.  Credit: Judy Lash Balint

Many works are exhibited in the open, without barriers or cases. A royal Herodian bathhouse from the first century B.C.E., for example, has been reconstructed with pillars, frescos, mosaics and tiles excavated from Herod’s palace. Lavishly decorated and technologically advanced for its time, the bathhouse includes a raised mosaic floor and earthenware piping built into the walls to provide heating.

The breadth and beauty of the collections on display is breathtaking, with items including dozens of chanukiyahs from around the world, four synagogue interiors as the centerpiece of the Mandel Wing for Jewish Art and Life, an intricate menorah insignia carved on an ancient ossuary and an array of contemporary Israeli art in the Edmond and Lily Safra Fine Arts Wing. The museum’s holdings include some 500,000 objects, which will be rotated in and out of permanent exhibits.

Perhaps the most anticipated feature of the renovation is the establishment of a permanent exhibition of Israeli art, alongside the impressive collections of European, African, Oceanic and Asian art, architecture and design.

Substantial support for the renovation came from Los Angeles donors. Longtime supporters Paul and Herta Amir of Beverly Hills, together with the New York-based D.S. and R.H. Gottesman Foundation, contributed $3 million in 2007 to underwrite the renovation of the Shrine of the Book, the signature structure at the museum, housing the Dead Sea Scrolls. In appreciation of their continuing contributions to the museum, the Amirs were seated beside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, at the reopening gala.

The Amirs are among a group of major international donors that also includes Judy and Michael Steinhardt of New York; the Estate of Dorothea Gould in Zurich, Switzerland; the Nash Family Foundation of New York; the Marc Rich Foundation of Lucerne, Switzerland; the Bella and Harry Wexner Philanthropies of The Legacy Heritage Fund of New York and Jerusalem; and Linda and Harry Macklowe of New York.

Over the years, the Amirs have quietly contributed to numerous projects at the museum, forgoing the opportunity to have their names on any particular gallery or building.

Founders of the Amir Development Co., both Amirs were born in Slovakia, survived the Holocaust and went their separate ways after World War II. They later married when Paul, who had been a kibbutz member for a number of years, decided to immigrate to America, where Herta had arrived earlier. Herta has served on the national board of AIPAC and the couple are active members of the American Friends of the Tel Aviv Art Museum and Haifa University.

The Amirs’ daughter Orna and her husband, Keenan Wolens, are donors to the Israel Museum Endowment Fund.

Other Los Angeles residents who made significant contributions to the renovation project include Alice and Nahum Lainer, honorary fellows of the museum and longtime members of the local branch of American friends of the Israel Museum and the Directors Circle of major donors.

The Lainers support various art acquisitions, concentrating on Israeli art, contemporary art and photography. Like the Amirs, the Lainers have passed on their love of art and the Israel Museum to the next generation — daughter Nancy is a donor as well and heads IMage LA, the West Coast Friends of the Israel Museum’s young professionals group.