A Visit to The Israel Museum

By Jamie Fraser (The British Museum)

While passing through Jerusalem in May, I managed a brief visit to The Israel Museum, currently celebrating its 50th year. Standing on the summit of a hill opposite the Knesset in West Jerusalem, the museum has an extensive archaeological wing containing materials spanning the early Stone Age to the Ottoman period, as well as wings for Jewish culture and contemporary art.

The promenade and water feature leading to the Israel Museum.

I last visited the Israel Museum in 2007, and recall vividly the thrill of standing in front of the famous Chalcolithic treasure hoard from Nahal Mishmar, including its spectacular copper sceptres and crowns. Now one of the museum’s most prized displays, the hoard was found in a cave above the Dead Sea, and probably constitutes the ritual paraphernalia cached from a temple at Ein Gedi nearby.

The 2010 refurbishments

The museum has since received a US$100 million refurbishment, mostly from private funds. I was surprised to see fewer objects on display, and sections once devoted to Judaica and Jewish ethnography are now housed in the wing devoted to “Jewish Art and Life”. The archaeological artefacts that remain are, however, better contextualized within broader themes such as the emergence of farming, or the development of written scripts.

These changes represent a significant shift in the museum’s philosophy, and have been driven by Director James S. Snyder. When Snyder walked into the museum in 1997, he found a collection that emphasised the “Land-of-Israel”. When he steps down in 2017, Snyder will leave galleries that instead explore the pluralities of “the Land” – a concept used extensively throughout the Museum’s English translations. As the New York Times reported upon the completion of the refurbishments in 2010:

today, here in the capital of the Jewish state, there is a tendency to see the world purely through Jewish history and culture. That is precisely what Mr Snyder…has sought to avoid. Rather, he has emphasized the commonalities of cultures and tries to place Jewish history and practices in a broader and clearer context”.

No better is this philosophy seen than in three reconstructed Byzantine structures, where part of a restored synagogue stands adjacent to both the apse of a church and the prayer niche of a mosque, emphasising distinctiveness and commonalities together.

Pharaoh in Canaan: The Untold Story

I was particularly keen to revisit the museum to view the current exhibition “Pharaoh in Canaan: The Untold Story”. Drawing on over 680 objects, this exhibition explores the often fractious relationship between Egypt and Canaan in the 2nd millennium BC. It focusses particularly on the Canaanite Hyksos dynasty that ruled the eastern Nile delta from c.1800-1550 BC, and on the heavy imperial response that followed, in which Canaan fell under Egyptian rule for 300 years. A particular highlight is the basalt stele of Seti I, which details the Egyptian victory over a Canaanite confederacy near Beth Shan, including a mysterious group of people called the apiru, which many scholars identify as a forerunner to the later Hebrew tribes.

The exhibition has generated considerable controversy for its treatment of the Exodus, the best known part of the Egyptian-Canaanite story. Strikingly, the gallery devoted to this issue stands empty. The lone exhibit is a short video display, in which the exhibition’s curator, Dr Daphna Ben-Tor, explains that the gallery is devoid of artefacts because there are simply no archaeological materials to support the Biblical account.

It is here, perhaps, that the museum’s philosophy under Snyder is most apparent. While the video does not accept the Biblical story, neither does it reject it completely; rather, it seeks to place the story within its historical and cultural contexts. Drawing on the familiar arguments of archaeologist Israel Finkelstein, the presentation looks to the expulsion of the Canaanite Hyksos tribes in c.1550 BC as the kernel of truth around with the Biblical Exodus myth would later accrete.

Nevertheless, this laudable appreciation for nuance and context contrasts a different story of competing narratives in a contested land. The exhibition includes several key pieces from the Rockefeller Archaeological Museum (formerly the Palestine Archaeological Museum) in East Jerusalem. The transference of these artefacts to the Israel Museum in West Jerusalem is controversial and breaches international law. While the Israel Museum explores for the first time the role of Pharaoh in Canaan, perhaps the greater “untold story” remains the stewardship of archaeological materials in occupied territorial zones.

The octagonal tower of the Rockefeller Museum in East Jerusalem.

The octagonal tower of the Rockefeller Museum in East Jerusalem.

Built during the British Mandate period, the Palestine Archaeological Museum also housed the Department of Antiquities.

Built during the British Mandate period, the Palestine Archaeological Museum also housed the Department of Antiquities. This incised sign is outside the entrance to the museum.

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