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The Museum at the Heart of the Universe

December 1, 2010

by: Charleeda Sprinkle, Assistant Editor

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Though there have been five to six other expansions since its beginning in 1965, this one was the most expensive and extensive. Since this is a popular stop for those who come on tour to Israel—drawing around 4,500 visitors per day—we thought you’d like a preview of it and want to urge you to make a return visit even if you’ve been there before.

From the moment I stepped out of the taxi at the outside entrance, I noticed change. Though the external look of the campus’s multiple buildings is not so extraordinary, its simple sleek lines made up of glass and louvered walls give visitors the feel of wide open spaces. This is especially welcome in a museum where spaces so full of exhibit items often are dark and crowded, so that once you leave, you feel you need a breath of fresh air. This is certainly not the case with the renovated Israel Museum.

 The biggest impression made on me was its light and spaciousness, so I would say that Museum Director James Snyder’s choice of architect James Carpenter was well rewarded. According to an Israel 21c article, Carpenter was chosen because of “his innovative use of glass and light.” The outside walls of cast terracotta louvers effectively diffuse Israel’s harsh sunlight, which is especially important for summertime visitors. In fact, they are the first thing you notice when you arrive. A louvered wall faces the street and provides a large shaded area between it and the new gift shop, where busloads of tourists disembark.

Photo by Tim Hursley,
courtesy of The Israel Museum

As you cross the corridor to the main entrance—also with a covered, shaded area—and look to the right, the whole of the broad stepped Carter Promenade (not new) can be seen. Leading to the highest point of the 20-acre campus, it is dramatically crowned with Anish Kapoor’s newly commissionedTurning the World Upside Down, Jerusalem—a five-meter (16.4 feet) high, polished stainless steel sculpture.

 I found the new campus design to be very visitor-friendly. Even the security checks and ticket purchasing are done inside the entrance rather than outside in the heat or cold. Wherever it was possible to put glass walls, they did. Besides information desks, the entrance houses a cafe that looks out to a large reflection pool as well as a restaurant with both inside and outside dining areas, so you have a pleasant place to sit inside if you’re waiting to meet friends.

 The Galleries

 A short walk through a new spacious tunnel, under the Promenade, leads to the bottom level of the new three-story gallery entrance pavilion and Olafur Eliasson’s colorful, newly commissioned Whenever the Rainbow Appears—a 13-meter (44-feet) long display of the colors of the light spectrum on 360 hand-painted canvases, each 2.3 meters (7.5 feet) high by 3.7 centimeters (1.5 inches) wide.

This gallery entrance pavilion, with its broad 8.4-meter (27-feet) corridors, provides access to the museum’s three main gallery wings: Archaeology, Jewish Art and Life, and Fine Arts. On the inside, this access is so seamless that visitors are not even aware that they’ve moved into wings made up of the older buildings; instead, you feel like you are in one big building. Visitors have three options: a free guided one-hour tour of a wing, which gives you a quick but very informative overview; free handheld audio guides; or walking through on your own, reading as you go.

 Another very nice feature I found in the Jewish Art and Life wing is a bank of computers at individual desks where pictures of a room come up with all its displays. If you touch an item in the picture, the information for that item appears, so if you’re tired of walking or standing, you can go on tour from a computer screen!

 I went on two guided tours. One of my guides—one of the museum’s 350 volunteers—had worked at the museum for over 25 years, and I was amazed at how much historical data she was able to recite without notes. I noticed that she gave us much more information than was written beside the displays, and, of course, with a guide, you can ask questions. I highly recommend these tours if you can only afford a one-time visit, as it’s tiring trying to read everything yourself, but for others, especially locals, you need several visits to see it all. The museum is open every day of the week, even Saturdays, so it’s a nice place for tourists to go on Shabbat (the Sabbath) when most other sites are closed. On Tuesdays, their hours are 4–9 pm, giving the option to visit in the evening.

My favorites are Archaeology and Jewish Art and Life. One change made in the Archaeology Wing is that the items have been placed in chronological order. This wing has the most extensive holdings of biblical and Holy Land archaeology in the world. It was exciting to see the huge 12th-century fresco, on display for the first time, which we had just featured in the October 2010 issue of the Dispatch.

The entrance to the wing for Jewish Art and Life features a “Cycle of Life” display appropriately done in the round, showing the unique aspects of Jewish life in birth, marriage, and death. My favorite, however, was the display of 120 Hanukkah lamps from 15 countries, not just because I love the many different styles of hanukkiahs, but because of the way they were displayed—in lighted inset “windows,” a truly stunning showcase. A museum press release states that the collection “is the most comprehensive in the world, and many are on view for the first time.”

 The “star” of this gallery, however, is unquestionably the new Synagogue Route, which includes four restored synagogues: the 16th-century Kadavumbagam Synagogue from Cochin, India; the 18th-century Italian Baroque synagogue; the 1735 synagogue from Germany; and the Tzedek ve-Shalom synagogue from Suriname (in northern South America). The first three had been on display previously but had not been placed in the museum together; now they’re all together in a row. The Suriname synagogue, called a “showstopper” by Director Synder, was dismantled and shipped to the museum in 1999 after the small remaining Jewish community there requested the museum’s help in preserving it, but it is on display for the first time, with the unique feature of having a white sand floor. A special tour just for the Synagogue Route is provided.

 I’ve only touched on a small portion of what these galleries contain, which  overall currently displays only 10% of the museum’s total holdings. The Israel Museum is truly a jewel that the nation can be proud of…but there’s still more.

The Larger Campus

 A lot of people don’t realize that the Israel Museum includes the Shrine of the Book, the Second Temple Period Model of Jerusalem, the Rockefeller Archaeological Museum, and the Ticho House—the last two being at other locations in the city.

 * The Shrine of the Book has always been my favorite of all the exhibits in Jerusalem because of its unique construction both outside and inside, its mesmerizing contents, and because it’s small enough to go through within an hour’s time. Shaped like the lid of an ancient clay pot, it holds the Dead Sea Scrolls, the oldest biblical manuscripts in the world, and rare early medieval biblical manuscripts.

 * The Model of Jerusalem is a venue I’ve returned to many times since I first saw it at its original setting before it was moved to the Israel Museum campus in 2006. Since it is Second Temple Period, in the time of Jesus, it is especially informative for Christians. The 50:1 model’s detail, covering nearly an acre, helps a reader of the New Testament understand many of its stories’ settings, bringing the Bible to life.

 * The Rockefeller Archaeological Museum, located down the street from the Old City’s Damascus Gate, was built in 1938 with funds from its namesake. Because its contents were chiefly archaeological finds unearthed in digs during the British Mandate Period (1920–1948), Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek (1965–93) wanted a museum with a broader scope including art, so he founded the Israel Museum (and was its president for 31 years). But the value of the Rockefeller Museum, sometimes referred to as an “architectural gem,” was not ignored and was officially made a part of the Israel Museum in 1967, just two years after its founding.

 * The Ticho House, in the center of downtown Jerusalem just around the corner from the Bridges for Peace headquarters, was bequeathed to the museum in 1982. It is considered a Jerusalem landmark, partially because it was one of the first houses built outside the Old City walls. Though it was built by an Arab in the last half of the 19th century, it is known by its European owners’ names: Dr. Albert Ticho, an ophthalmologist, and his wife Anna, a widely acclaimed artist of her day. The grounds not only serve as a museum but also a popular restaurant, with possibly the loveliest garden dining in the city.  

 Other attractions on the Israel Museum campus include the Ruth Youth Wing for Art Education, which is entertaining even for adults, and the Billy Rose Art Garden, one of the finest outdoor sculpture settings of the 20th century with works from the great sculptors of the late 19th century, as well as renowned artists of the 20th century.

Entrance to Bronfman
Archaology wing.


From the Jewish Art and Life wing:
Hanukkah lamp installation showcasing 120 hanukkiahs from around the world. The Tzedek ve-Shalom Synagogue from Suriname with a white sand floor.
• Photo by Isranet/Tim Hursley • Photo by Elie Posner, courtsey of The Israel Museum


Unique in the World

 In a Media Line interview, Director Snyder was asked about the $100 million-investment. “We are at the tail end of an age where museum expansions…have cost many multiples of that number, and in a way, we set out to demonstrate that you can make a complete and transforming change to the public face of the museum and only spend $100 million,” said Snyder. It doubled the gallery space, as well as added 100,000 more square feet (9,290 square meters) in other areas. But even when 90% of it was under construction and closed to the public, it still had an average of 500,000 visitors a year, of which about half came from the nations. Remarkable!

 It’s really much more than a national museum. It’s “supported by the world,” as Snyder put it, with an international council of organizations in 14 countries and friends all over the globe. “I think 21 friends and family and foundations from all over the world contributed gifts of $5 million and $10 million to make possible this transformative change,” he said. When asked by The Media Line how the Israel Museum compares with other great art institutions of the world, Snyder made this insightful statement: “There’s something quite special about being…a universal museum that sits on a hilltop surrounded by the majesty of Jerusalem. It really does make us stand apart from all of those other great museums by virtue of [the] universalism that we have and by virtue of the location of where we sit—at the heart of the universe.”

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