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.
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”.
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.
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.