The Palestinian Museum in Ramallah

By Felicity Cobbing (Palestine Exploration Fund)

On Wednesday 18th May, the new state-of-the-art building of Palestinian Museum at Birzeit University in Ramallah was officially unveiled, and I was lucky enough to be one of those invited to the celebrations. The museum project began life in 1997 as an idea conceived by Taawon – Welfare Association, a not-for-profit organisation with members from across the Palestinian and Arab world, which supports numerous welfare and cultural projects of incredible diversity in Palestine and Arab communities in Israel. Originally the museum was envisaged as a response to the Nakba, or ‘Disaster’ of 1948, when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were displaced, and many were killed during the birth of the state of Israel. However, over time, the idea grew to encompass a wider and more positive vision of Palestinian heritage throughout time.

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Panorama of the Palestinian Museum.

The Museum is situated on a 40,000 square metre plot of land donated to it by neighbouring Birzeit University on a long-term lease. It is funded entirely by several independent organisations, including Taawon and the Qattan Foundation. Currently, the museum building is just a building (albeit a rather beautiful one), which has raised eyebrows in some quarters. Some have questioned the wisdom of opening the building prior to having anything to show. However, talking to those involved, the pride in the achievement so far was palpable, and deserving of its own recognition. The opening of the building was a declaration to the world that Palestinians are capable of great things, despite the obstacles put in their path, and are worthy of ambitious and sophisticated projects such as this. The building is in itself is a huge statement of cultural intent. As Oliver Wainwright writing in the Guardian says, it is a “beacon of optimism”.

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The opening ceremony at the Palestinian Museum.

It is anticipated that the museum’s staff, led by its new Director, Dr. Mahmoud Hawari (formerly of the Khalili Institute in Oxford and the British Museum), will now work on building a programme of diverse exhibitions and events, working closely with other institutions both in Palestine and internationally. A satellite exhibition curated by Rachel Dedman entitled ‘At the Seams: A Political History of Palestinian Embroidery’ has already opened at the Dar el Nimer gallery in Beirut. Back in Ramallah, Dr. Hawari’s vision is to create a museum which enables everyone, including Palestinians, to see connections and continuities between the ancient past and the modern world. He is keen to build a non-nationalistic narrative, which is inclusive of the many diverse peoples and traditions of the region. The Palestinian Museum’s logo, a graphic speech bubble, is the perfect symbol to express this intent. This process is bound to take time, and is going to be a challenging balancing act for the new team to achieve.

From talking to people at the event, what was very apparent was the urgent need for a venue for young people in which to have a voice. The lack of safe spaces for Palestinians to express themselves artistically and creatively has been chronic, and it is envisaged that the new museum will provide such a venue for modern creative expression alongside the traditional idea of a museum as an exhibition space for displays of artefacts and art. If the Palestinian Museum can marry these different functions into a successful whole, then it could provide an interesting and innovative model for other museum developments internationally.

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The sun sets on the Palestinian Museum’s botanical garden.

Certainly, the 3,500 square metre eco-friendly building, designed by Dublin architectural firm Heneghan Peng has flexibility built in, with education space, an outside amphitheatre and terrace, and an extensive and beautiful terraced garden which links the new strikingly modern structure, with the limestone terraces of the surrounding hills. The garden is in itself an exhibit, featuring the rich botanical and agricultural heritage of the region, which The new building is itself a geometric take on the same terraces, and so the whole is a wonderfully conceived marriage between über modern design and ancient agricultural landscape, with a stunning view over the limestone hills of Palestine and Israel down to the Mediterranean cost and the high rise towers of Tel Aviv. An expansion of the existing building is envisaged in the future, possibly in other venues internationally, depending on the evolving needs of the museum and its visiting public.

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.

Palestine Exploration Fund Museum, 2 Hinde Street

A selection of images from our archive showing the PEF museum on the upper floor of 2 Hinde Street.

Our First Hundred Years (and fifty more)*

By Adam Fraser and Amara Thornton**

2015 marks the 150th anniversary of the Palestine Exploration Fund.  To kick off the celebration (as a preface to the events that are to come throughout the year) we will be looking at our first hundred year celebration in 1965.

Held at the Victoria and Albert Museum initially from 1 October to 28 November, “World of the Bible” featured a wide range of goodies from the PEF’s history.  In addition, the PEF benefitted from the skills of its co-sponsor the British Council’s art and graphics department.  The 3D maps of the Holy Land they made for the exhibition are still held in the PEF today.

The exhibition highlighted various phases of the PEF’s history, beginning with the initial surveys by Charles Warren and Claude Conder and Herbert Horatio Kitchener in the 1860s and 1870s.  It showcased a century of excavations in the Holy Land, culminating in Kathleen Kenyon’s excavations in Jerusalem. A folder in the PEF archive is devoted to press cuttings from “World of the Bible” – one of the most publicised displays was a reconstructed rock-cut tomb from Lachish, discovered during the Wellcome-Marston Expedition in the 1930s. The Queen Mother was among the visitors!

The archaeologist Olga Tufnell organised the exhibition – her detailed journals in the PEF’s archive chronicle her efforts to arrange the displays. Loan material was gathered from around the UK and beyond.  After its debut at the V & A, a pared-down version of “World of the Bible” went on tour to cities in Britain and the Middle East.

Thanks to Olga’s efforts, there is a substantial collection at the PEF commemorating this exhibition. Here are some of the treasures we’ve found.

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Exhibition publication from the PEF’s archive – from the notice at the bottom obviously this was not the copy offered for sale to the public. Copyright Palestine Exploration Fund.

Labels from the exhibition archive.  Some highlight items on display, while others indicate key moments in the PEF's history. Copyright Palestine Exploration Fund.

Labels from the exhibition archive. Some highlight items on display, while others indicate key moments in the PEF’s history. Copyright Palestine Exploration Fund.

This telegram from the British Consul General at Beyrout to PEF Secretary Walter Besant shares the news of the attack on PEF surveyors at Safed, near the Sea of Galilee. It was mounted for exhibition in 1965. Copyright Palestine Exploration Fund.

This telegram from the Consul General at Beyrout to PEF Secretary Walter Besant shares the news of the attack on PEF surveyors at Safed, near the Sea of Galilee, in July 1875. It was mounted for exhibition in 1965. Copyright Palestine Exploration Fund.

Philanthropist and traveller John Macgregor was an active member of the PEF.  In his canoe, “Rob Roy”, he sailed the Jordan River in 1868/1869, identifying its source.  Olga Tufnell chose to exhibit his original sketchbook in the 1965 exhibition.  This image from the sketchbook showcases Macgregor’s considerable skill as an artist.  His best-selling book “Rob Roy on the Jordan” was published in the autumn of 1869.  Macgregor donated his sketchbook to the PEF in 1880.

Philanthropist and traveller John Macgregor was an active member of the PEF. In his canoe, “Rob Roy”, he sailed the Jordan River in 1868/1869, identifying its source. Olga Tufnell chose to exhibit his original sketchbook in the 1965 exhibition. This image from the sketchbook showcases Macgregor’s considerable skill as an artist. He donated his sketchbook to the PEF in 1880. Copyright Palestine Exploration Fund.

The page following this peaceful watercolour in John Macgregor’s sketchbook lists supplies for an expedition to Huleh, in the north east of modern day Israel.  The items listed include tea, soup and brandy, a pistol, flannel trousers, money and quinine. Copyright Palestine Exploration Fund.

The page following this peaceful watercolour in John Macgregor’s sketchbook lists supplies for an expedition to Huleh, in the north east of modern day Israel. The items listed include tea, soup and brandy, a pistol, flannel trousers, money and quinine. Copyright Palestine Exploration Fund.

Charles Warren’s shafts tunnelling through the ground in Jerusalem are deftly captured in this line drawing in John Magregor’s sketchbook. Copyright Palestine Exploration Fund.

Charles Warren’s shafts tunnelling through the ground in Jerusalem are deftly captured in this line drawing in John Magregor’s sketchbook. Copyright Palestine Exploration Fund.

This annotated V&A museum letterhead was pasted inside one of Olga Tufnell’s exhibition notebooks. It lists the admission details for exhibiton visitors. Copyright Palestine Exploration Fund.

This annotated V&A museum letterhead was pasted inside one of Olga Tufnell’s exhibition notebooks. It lists the admission details for exhibiton visitors. Copyright Palestine Exploration Fund.

*Our title derives from eminent Victorian Egyptologist Margaret Murray’s colourful autobiography My First Hundred Years, published in 1963 when she was 100 years old.
** With special thanks to John MacDermot.

In Search of the Late Antique pilgrimage eulogia of Jerusalem

By Lucy O’Connor

During Late Antiquity, large numbers of Christians travelled vast distances from the west and undertook perilous journeys over land and sea to reach the land of the Bible. These pilgrims longed to visit the places described in the Old and New Testaments: Nazareth, Bethlehem, Bethany, Galilee, the River Jordan, to name just a few. The ancient city of Jerusalem was deemed the holiest of all; it was the place where the final events in Christ’s life took place. Pilgrims longed to worship at the site of the Last Supper, the Garden of Gethsemane, the place of Christ’s Crucifixion on Golgotha, His Tomb close by, and the site of His Ascension on the Mount of Olives. Lavishly decorated shrines and churches were built at many of these holy places (loca sancta). Some of them such as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (Fig 1), housing the site of the Crucifixion and the Tomb, accommodated large congregations during special feast days.

Fig 1. An exterior view of the church of the Holy Sepulchre. Photo: L. O'Connor, 2014.

Fig 1. An exterior view of the church of the Holy Sepulchre. Photo: L. O’Connor, 2014.

Pilgrims travelled to the Holy Land for various reasons: some went to be baptised in the same waters that Christ had been baptised in the River Jordan, some sought healing from sickness, some went to reaffirm their faith in God, whilst others purely wished to worship the ground upon which Christ had walked. Above all these reasons, they went to see and touch. These pilgrims strongly believed that the spiritual power of a holy site, a holy person or a treasured relic was transferrable through touch. Earthly materials were thus consecrated through physical contact with sacred matter.

From the fourth century, contemporary written sources reveal that pilgrims began to collect natural objects from loca sancta that they believed were infused with the holy. These souvenirs or eulogia included pieces of wood, stone, bread, fruit and even fish. By the sixth century, holy oil, water and earth were the more standard souvenirs collected. A new form of art and craft was developed in the Holy Land during this time to contain and transport these sanctified substances. The array of material culture related to Late Antique pilgrimage in existence and the widespread location of their find spots suggests that manufactured eulogia once existed in large numbers and were popular items to collect amongst the pilgrims from this early period.

One popular form of pilgrimage object was tokens, tiny roundels (almost coin-like) that were constructed from holy earth or clay and stamped with images of holy figures and scenes from the life of Christ. Another type of eulogia was flasks or ampullae containing blessed liquids taken from the oil lamps that burned at the holy places or that had passed over the bodies of saints. These were made from a variety of materials such as glass, clay and tin-lead pewter. Like the tokens, they too were decorated with images of saints or scenes from Bible.

My research interests lie in the art of Late Antique pilgrimage and the purpose of my application to the Palestine Exploration Fund’s Travel Grant was to research and document the eulogia held in the museum institutions and church collections of Jerusalem, including the Israel Museum, where many pilgrimage artefacts are held (Fig 2).

Fig. 2: A general view of the Byzantine Gallery. Photo: L. O’Connor, 2014 (Reproduced here courtesy of the Israel Museum).

Fig. 2: A general view of the Byzantine Gallery. Photo: L. O’Connor, 2014 (Reproduced here courtesy of the Israel Museum).

This was actually my third trip to Jerusalem. Although very little of the original church from the fourth century survives, my favourite place to visit in Jerusalem is the church of the Holy Sepulchre. Whenever passing (and if I could spare the time), I always tried to pop in. There were always new sections to discover and the light through the church changed dramatically throughout the day (Fig 3).

Fig. 3: The interior dome of the Sepulchre. Photo: L. O’Connor, 2014.

Fig. 3: The interior dome of the Sepulchre. Photo: L. O’Connor, 2014.

The church was usually always full of pilgrims and huge groups of tourists, which made getting close to the holy sites quite problematic! 6am mass in the tomb helped to avoid the queues! (Fig 3) I also enjoyed coming across groups of pilgrims singing hymns whilst retracing Christ’s final footsteps along the Via Dolorosa.

Fig. 4: Modern-day pilgrims at Christ’s Tomb. Photo: L. O’Connor, 2014.

Fig. 4: Modern-day pilgrims at Christ’s Tomb. Photo: L. O’Connor, 2014.

The souvenir shops that line Christian Quarter Street are filled with candles, rosaries, icons, models of the Holy Sepulchre, and interestingly many share similarities to those from Late Antiquity. There were bottles of various sizes of holy water from the River Jordan, holy oil taken from the lamps at the Sepulchre and small terracotta oil lamps that had been decorated to mimic those from the fourth century. I bought a number of miniature sets of holy oil, water and earth that had been placed in tiny phials. They each came with a card to certify their authenticity, though as many of the bottles could be opened, I didn’t quite trust their “holy” nature…!