The Palestinian Museum: imperilled objects and unsafe ideas

Palestine’s first National Museum opens today in the West Bank - a “cultural mothership” drawing together pieces from a scattered and censored Palestinian history.

Zoe Holman
18 May 2016

This article was first published in February 2016

On signs overlooking the ancient Mediterranean port of Jaffa – once the largest city in historic Palestine – visitors can read about more than a millennia of town history in up to four languages. None of these is Arabic. In the city centre’s clock tower square, constructed by the Ottomans in 1900, a commemorative plaque in Hebrew meanwhile evokes in readers “the Memory of the Heroes who Fell in the Battle to Liberate Yafo.” Indeed, there is little in today’s Jaffa to indicate to the outsider that the region was once home to some 800,000 Arab Palestinians, 95 per cent of whom were displaced by Zionist military forces in 1947-48 with the declaration of the state of Israel. Likewise, on highways leading out of the city, the terrain’s Palestinian past can be seen progressively elided in roads signs which now designate towns with Hebraised names – Jerusalem no longer “al-Quds” in Arabic script, but “Urushalim.”

Family Album III.jpg

Mufti Kamil Taher al-Husseini welcomes General Allenby during his visit to Al-Aqsa Mosque, Jerusalem. From the family album of Said Husseini. ©The Palestinian Museum

Such contemporary markers seem to manifest Edward Said’s observation, more than thirty years ago, that the Palestinian narrative has never been admitted to Israeli history, “except as that of ‘non-Jews,’ whose inert presence in Palestine was a nuisance to be ignored or expelled.” As he wrote of the widespread vindication, locally and internationally, of Israel’s account of statehood, “to top it all off, Palestinians are expected to participate in the dismantling of their own history.”

Despite this seemingly implacable erasure inside Israel’s borders and beyond, fragments of that Palestinian history are now being re-assembled in the West Bank town of Birzeit, where the first national museum is to open this year. The $30 million project, whose foundation stones were laid in 2013, will see the inauguration of the only institution dedicated to preserving two centuries of Palestinian culture, society, and history into the International Council of Museums. Funded by the transnational philanthropic organisation, the Welfare Association, the museum will house a series of exhibitions with the aim of linking those living in historic Palestine to others dispersed in the global diaspora.

Family Album I.jpg

A Palestinian family taken shortly after their exile to Jordan in 1949. From the family album of Abla and Alfred Tubasi. ©The Palestinian Museum

 As the London-based chair of the museum’s taskforce, Omar al-Qattan explains, Palestinians’ mass expulsion and exile since 1948 has presented the greatest challenge to conserving and exhibiting their heritage. “Their built up environment, as well as their cultural patrimony, was either destroyed or confiscated by the new state,” he says. “One must never underestimate the profound and decimating effect that forced exile and war have on a people  – its memory, its customs, its oral history, its music and dance, its artisanal skill base. These are more vital than museum pieces and their destruction may quite fairly be termed as cultural genocide.”

Under its continued occupation of historical Palestine, the state of Israel has retained almost exclusive ownership and control of the land’s cultural assets. Much of these now furnish the residences of wealthy Israeli artists and collectors, or are displayed in the country’s museums in what al-Qattan deems “refashioned tourist attractions” with little or no reference to their Arab histories. While Israeli archaeologists continue to dig in the Occupied Territories, often contravening the Geneva Convention, the government’s refusal to sign UNESCO protocols on international exchange of cultural assets renders it near impossible to ensure any materials entering or leaving its borders.

 The newly-completed Palestine Museum building, Birzeit. Photo: Khaled Fanni. ©The Palestinian Museum

It is these dislocations and restrictions which have given rise to the novel strategy behind the Palestine Museum. As al-Qattan describes, “if geographically we are dispersed, divided and prevented from moving freely within our country; if politically we are incoherent and without direction; if most of us have no access to our capital in Jerusalem; and if Israel has never been so powerful, what can we do to subvert and bypass these challenges?” The answer has come in the form of a cultural “mother ship”; a museum headquartered in Birzeit which links Palestine’s many satellite communities around the country and globe, enabling the sharing of the museum’s programme, the exchange of resources and communication via an online platform. “One of the great miracles of culture is that it does not recognise political borders,” he says. “The realisation that film, poetry, dance and so on are extremely powerful ambassadors for the Palestinians, plus the power of the internet, means that culture is often a way for Palestinians across the world to connect and communicate with each other.”

The Palestinian football team compete in a national sporting event in 1928. From the family album of Ragab Shahin. ©The Palestinian Museum

Unlike the static casements and unilateral narratives in which so much of the region’s heritage has found itself enclosed, the institution aspires to a dynamic, interactive curation of the past. Its inaugural exhibition ‘Never Part’, scheduled to open in October, epitomises this approach by drawing together interviews with local and diaspora Palestinians about personal objects they refuse to relinquish. Compiled over more than three years, its 280 individual objects and testimonials offer a miscellany of alternative interpretations of Palestine’s collective history. A mug, comb, backgammon set, and even a bed, are joined by a cactus plant - the offshoots of an original from Jaffa which was carried into exile with its owner in 1948. The collection also features a piece of fossilised coral from the West Bank - the treasured possession of renowned Palestinian lawyer and author, Raja Shehadeh. The exhibition, he says, is a reminder that “Palestinians, wherever they are, will never part with Palestine and hold it dear to the hearts.”

As well as generating these new archives, the museum is also partnering to help bring to light existing ones – most notably through assisting to digitize more than half a million pieces of photography and audio currently held by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNWRA). The agency has documented its operations in the region since their outset in 1950 and the resulting collection affords rare audio-visual accounts of key events - from 1967 through to Israel’s 1982 war on Lebanon, the Palestinian uprisings of 1987 and 2000 and the present day. As UNWRA archive co-ordinator, Michelle Hamers explains, “its value and uniqueness lies in the fact that no other entity, in the absence of a national archive, has documented this for 65 years.” The archive is working to make every asset in its collection publically accessible online by the end of the year. Simultaneously, UNWRA is developing an educational history toolkit for school children based on its archive contents – a course which will likely provide a riposte to the many selective or conflicting narratives contained in Israeli textbooks.

The timespan of UNWRA’s archive also indicates a date which is pivotal, if not unproblematic, to the museum’s charter. When conceived in 1997, it was first intended as a memorial to commemorate the 1948 Nakba, or formative ‘catastrophe’ which lead to the founding of Israel and subsequently reshaped geopolitics. The project has since broadened its focus as well as its mission, but the date remains central, as is reflected in the museum’s scheduled inauguration date in May coinciding with the 68th Nakba anniversary. “[The Nakba’s] profoundly destructive effects continue to haunt not only Palestinians but also the rest of the region,” explains al-Qattan. “No project focussed on modern history in Palestine can avoid to reflect on that date – not in the morbid, backward-looking sense, but rather to remind ourselves, the world and Israelis in particular that there is no just and peaceful future for the country until that injustice is properly and fully redressed.” 


The newly-completed Palestine Museum building, Birzeit. Photo: Khaled Fanni.  ©The Palestinian Museum

Yet the significance of the Nakba also raises the problematic of defining Palestinian history through reference to Israel. Speaking prior to his decision to step-down in December 2015, the museum’s former director, Jack Persekian noted the need to transcend the relatively recent, temporal bounds of the so-called Israel-Palestine conflict. “This is a monument to remember a sad juncture, but it is not where story starts or ends,” he explained. “We wanted to allow people to move back and forth in time and not be tied down to a particular moment. We did not want to be pitched against the Israeli story or remain incarcerated in a dichotomy formulation.”

Likewise, Persekian explained that the museum, with its former tagline “a safe place for unsafe ideas”, sought to defy many of the stereotypes that Israel’s occupation has engendered - on the part of Israeli and Palestinian leaders, as well as internationally. “Whenever one is talking about Palestine, there are certain set modes of representation that have been adopted by the political establishment and disseminated as the official narratives,” he said. “But the discussions we would like to have in the museum are about challenging a set of givens that we have lived with for many years now. It is about confronting taboos and sanctioned narratives, not merely acting as a national museum to vindicate what the authorities want.”

Such an aim such suggests the potential for tensions – be they ideological, academic or professional - to be borne out of Palestine’s first national museum. At the same time, widespread international coverage of the enterprise (which recently appeared on CNN’s list “9 of the best attractions opening in 2016”) appears to indicate a growth in the legitimacy of the Palestinian narrative – or in the least, of the ‘safe space’ in which it can be discussed. However determined the efforts at abnegation or reconfiguration taking place in Israel or elsewhere, it also seems that it is a narrative that - like the aging fragments of coral, keys and photographs - will be clutched with equal tenacity.

18th May: The museum celebrates its opening today, but without its inaugural show 'Never Part' highlighting artifacts of Palestinian refugees.

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