Renovated Israel Museum in Jerusalem emphasizes culture, “human experience”

The Israel Museum reopened its doors last week after a three-year renovation to tell its story anew, a local story that half the world recognizes as its story too.

The curators did not need to look far past the museum’s front door in Jerusalem to understand what it was they had to tell. Only a few dozen miles away, in the Jordan Valley, ancient man paused 1.5 million years ago for several millennia on his trek out of Africa, finding a place for himself in the food chain among the beasts of the field before moving on. In Jerusalem itself, the great monotheistic religions took shape as intermediaries between man and the unknown.

Here the Bible was writ and in an ineffable moment 23 centuries ago, barely two miles from the museum, the scribe Ezra mounted a podium to read portions of it aloud for the first time to the common folk of Judah who fell to the ground in trepidation and awe.

With dramas like this, turmoil such as that currently prevailing in the Middle East and its surroundings, from Afghanistan to Gaza, would hardly be worth noting had the museum’s brief extended to modern times. So rich with resonance are the items in the museum’s possession that director James Snyder, who orchestrated the $100 million renovation, decided that less is more. Even though the museum’s exhibition space has been doubled, the number of items on display is less than before in order to enable a less cluttered and more coherent presentation and to avoid drowning the visitor in artifacts. The great bulk of the 500,000 items in the museum’s possession lies in its storerooms, to be shown from time to time in temporary exhibitions.

Beyond the intrinsic value of its collections, the Israel Museum has a magna role beyond that played by museums abroad.

With religiosity no longer the universal bond among Jews around the world that it was until only three or four generations ago, culture and folk memory now occupy the center of Jewish ethnic consciousness. If this be the new religion, the Israel Museum in Jerusalem is its Temple as much as Solomon’s Temple across town had been for the followers of Jehovah 3,000 years ago.

In another context, the museum plays an important political role in a neighborhood where leaders like Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad portray Israel as a foreign intrusion into the region and declare that it has no right to exist and where Moslem clerics declare, as did the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, that there never was a Jewish temple in Jerusalem and that the Jews have no historic claims on the city. The Israel Museum makes it clear, without having to say it, that it is an affirmation of a vibrant Jewish culture in the land going back 3,000 years, a culture that infused this tiny strip of territory between the sea and the desert with its universal significance. If this does not make much of an impression on Israel’s enemies, it does with Israelis themselves, confirming an important layer of identity that underlies national will and provides cohesiveness in the face of existential danger.

The Israel Museum was conceived in the 1960s by Teddy Kollek, then a close aide to Israel’s Founding Father, David Ben-Gurion. Raised in museum-rich Vienna, the cosmopolitan Kollek believed it vital for Israel to have a cultural icon regardless of the desperate state of the country’s economy. Raising funds from wealthy Jews abroad, he pushed through the construction of the museum on a hilltop opposite the Knesset, a handsome ensemble of white pavilions echoing in modern form a Greek village. It opened in December,1965 a few weeks after Kollek was elected Jerusalem mayor. In that capacity he would oversee the museum’s development in the coming decades, spending mornings at City Hall and afternoons in his office in the museum.

In 1996, Snyder was named museum director. He had spent the previous 22 years at New York’s prestigious Museum of Modern Art, the last 10 as deputy director, and was ready for a change.

The Israel Museum had developed three main wings, he discovered – archaeology, fine arts and Judaica. There were some who saw the museum as lacking coherence—“many museums under one roof”. The physical layout of the 20 acre museum campus was awkward, obliging visitors to walk up a steep approach in order to reach the entrance and lacking a fluent connection between the wings. These problems were resolved by American architect James Carpenter hired by Snyder. His renovation permits visitors to reach the center of the complex on grade and to see at one glance the nearby entries to all three major wings as well as other facilities. Most of the expansion of exhibition space was achieved within the existing architectural envelope.

The Judaica section, now known as the Wing for Jewish Art and Life, has been enhanced by the interior of a striking 18th Century synagogue from Suriname in South America to which Jews from Spain and Portugal had fled to escape the inquisition. Its most striking feature is the white sand that covers the floor, said to symbolize the wandering of the Jews in the Sinai desert. It joins three other old synagogues – from Germany, Italy and India – in the wing’s collection.

The wing also includes a display of 120 distinctive Hanukkah lamps from 15 countries, jewelry and dress of Jews from Yemen and other exotic lands, an elegant burial carriage from Hungary, rare illuminated manuscripts.

The fine arts wing has been greatly expanded and includes for the first time a permanent gallery for Israeli art.

It is probably the archaeological wing which draws most interest due to the abundance of exciting finds made by Israeli archaeologists in the past 40 years. Little more than a century ago, the oldest known biblical text dated to the 10th Century AD. The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls (also on display at the museum) in the late 1940s pushed that date back about 1,200 years. In 1986, two small silver amulets with writing on them were found in a Jerusalem tomb. They proved to have been written in the 7th Century BC. Known as the Priestly Benediction, they are still part of the synagogue liturgy. The discovery would touch off a lively scholarly argument about when the bible was composed.

Also on display is an inscription from the king of Aram (in today’s Syria) claiming to have killed the king of “the house of David”, the only extra-biblical reference in antiquity to King David. Because of the absence of such references, while other biblical kings are frequently mentioned in contemporary sources, some scholars suggested that David was only a mythic, not real, figure.

A thumbnail-size piece of carved flint from the Golan, ostensibly showing a fertility goddess, is dated at 325,000 years ago and is claimed by scholars to be the oldest object sculpted by man.

Although Jewish artifacts predominate in the archaeology collection, it includes Islamic and Christian items as well. Among the latter is part of a large wall painting from the refectory of a Crusader Abbey in Jerusalem which warns that those who gossip about persons not present “have no place at our table”.

What interests Snyder, he says, is to have museum visitors “experience the unfolding of material culture from the start of time until today”.

Many different cultures are represented in the museum but Snyder puts his emphasis on the universality of the human experience. “The museum is about the resonance of cultures,” he says, “not the distinctions.”

Mr. Rabinovich is author of The Yom Kippur War.