On April 11, the cornerstone for the Palestinian Museum was laid in the vicinity of the university town of Birzeit, 14 kilometres north of Ramallah.
The vision of the Welfare Association’s board of trustees finally began to materialise. In 1997, when the trustees met, they had agreed on the need to establish a modern historical museum in Palestine dedicated to preserving and commemorating the recent past, in particular the Nakba (Catastrophe) of 1948 — the watershed event of 20th-century Palestinian history that led to the displacement and dispossession of 750,000 Palestinians.
Jack Persekian, the director and head curator, is passionate about the museum project. He comes with more than 20 years of institutional knowledge and experience as a curator, having previously worked in Germany, Spain, and Sharjah. “For this project the Welfare Association of Palestine were seeking advice and on my meeting with the board members, our vision aligned and I took it up,” he says when asked why he came back home.
Persekian then begins to elucidate: “This museum shall address contemporary issues pertinent to Palestinians, especially the context, meaning wherever they are including the diaspora — where more than half of the Palestinians have been born and raised up in places and cultures different to their roots, but they are part and parcel of what makes up the Palestinians.
“The Museum will look at a rich, varied and complex group of people and work backwards in defining the identity of the diaspora and important historical incidents, including the Nakba (Catastrophe), to understand where we came from and what is shaping our contemporary identity.”
Persekian is quick to emphasize that this is not an archaeological museum. “Rather we are taking the last 150 to 200 years as the framework and looking at this period,” he says. In the first five years we shall research, investigate and collect material, which we will then include in the collection. This modus operandi provides us a period in which we are not bound by readymade objects as the narratives are more important, and what’s more important is the process that should lead us to the permanent collection.”
Adding perspective, he says: “The Palestinian Archaeological Museum, also known as Rockefeller Museum in [occupied] Jerusalem, established in 1930, houses the main archaeological artefacts and tells the history of Palestine but is presently outside our control and inaccessible to most Palestinians. But it would be on the table for final negotiations.”
The Palestinian Museum is to be constructed in two phases, the first of which is slated for completion by the end of 2014. It is expected to cost about $20 million (Dh73 million). Phase One will include a climate-controlled gallery space, amphitheatre, cafeteria with outdoor seating, classrooms, gift shop and staff offices. Phase Two will be completed within ten years and will include more gallery space for temporary and permanent exhibitions, an auditorium, additional classrooms and a library.
Designed by Dublin-based architectural firm, Heneghan Peng, the building will be a modern structure with stone-and-glass façades that blend with its setting of cascading terraces, called “sanasil” in Arabic — which were traditionally built by local villagers using stonewalls, making the hilly landscape more suitable for agriculture.
The museum, adjacent to Birzeit University, will also have a series of thematic gardens flanking the building on one side and covering the terraces — gardens showcasing the trees, plants, flowers and herbs that are native to Palestine and the region.
“The Welfare Association of Palestine, its board members and trustees have to date, raised $13 million in kind and commitment for this project. It is a Palestinian not-for-profit initiative, independent of government, housed and cared for by the Welfare Association, which has been providing development and humanitarian assistance to Palestinians since 1983,” Persekian says.
On the choice of the location close to the town of Birzeit for the museum, Persekian says, “Original option was Jerusalem but it is not possible, so Welfare Association obtained land next to Birzeit University, which places us right next to an educational institution where we can concurrently develop expertise and which becomes an ideal partner and valuable resource.” He also points out that Birzeit “the centre of the West Bank.”
However, for those Palestinians living in the West Bank and whose daily movement is hindered by the walls and countless checkpoints, those living inside Israel who are prevented by Israeli military law from entering the occupied West Bank, and the millions who languish in the diaspora, an interactive Virtual Museum will go online. “By reaching out to our people, we hope to facilitate active engagement and participation that succeeds in bridging divides and transforming audiences in spite of the barriers that separate us,” Persekian says.
“The Palestine Museum is not in competition with the 30-odd ethnographic and archaeological museums that dot the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Instead we are working on trying to reflect the modern and contemporary period,” Persekian clarifies.
At present ten people are working on the museum project and when it open its doors to the public in 2014, it is anticipated that the number will rise to about 50.
At the groundbreaking ceremony, the museum taskforce chair, Omar Al Qattan noted that “the museum will not only be for Palestinians but will reach out to the whole world through an advanced digital network”, adding that “it will be more than a traditional building with archaeological relics. We are looking at an institution that will transcend all boundaries — geographical and political.”
Palestinian Culture Minister Siham Barghouthi hailed the start of work on the museum: “This museum is a great achievement for the Palestinian people. The link between memory and everything related to it, to Palestinian history, and to having digital contact with Palestinians everywhere constitutes an important step,” she said.
Persekian sheds light on the two planned exhibitions his team is working on. “The first revolves around the theme of identity, telling the stories of ordinary people through objects they have kept because of the way those objects invoke certain memories. It will go beyond those archetypical objects that have come to symbolise Palestinian identity and culture, such as the key and the deeds to occupied homes. The second exhibition will look at Palestinian identity through art and literature of non-Palestinians. This could also include those who don’t necessarily support the Palestinian cause. We are looking for concepts that will eventually initiate discussions and that will have people question some of the issues that touch at the heart and core of the Palestinian issue.”
At the end of Phase One, in the fall of 2014, a physical and virtual space will be ready, bringing together an innovative mix of exhibitions, research, and educational programmes.
The Palestinian Museum is envisaged to be a place for inspiration, dialogue and reflection. Through its digital platforms it seeks to connect Palestinians separated within their homeland, those dispersed around the world and all those interested in Palestine.
Rafique Gangat, author of “Ye Shall Bowl on Grass”, is based in occupied Jerusalem.