Thu, Aug 16, 2007 - Page 15 News List

The Israel Museum focuses on making its art accessible

The Israel Museum is one of the finest in the Middle East - if you can figure out how to get in and find the art


James Snyder, The Israel Museum's director, in Isamu Noguchi's sculpture garden, in Jerusalem.

Founded in 1965 by Teddy Kollek, the long-serving Jerusalem mayor, to ensure that Israel would have a national museum of world rank, the Israel Museum was a vital symbol of the new nation.

Kollek wanted, and got, "a modernist temple to culture" surrounded by other symbols of Israel's modern statehood, like the Knesset, the Supreme Court and the National Library, said the museum's director, James Snyder.

From ancient artifacts to contemporary art, the museum seeks to anchor the archaeology, material culture and ethnography of the world's Jews within a broader global context, both Western and non-Western. It boasts a dominant site at the entrance to Jerusalem, a widely admired sculpture garden and, of course, the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Yet its entrance is an uninspiring parking lot and ugly ticket building, and the portal to the actual exhibits is 247m away, requiring a hike up a hill, often in the blistering sun. It's also hard to find your way from one collection to the next.

Much of that is about to change as the museum embarks on an US$80 million expansion and renovation that will transform the way a visitor navigates and experiences the museum.

Snyder, who took over as director in 1997, sees the project as the solution to deep irritation over how the Israel Museum's rich and varied collections - from the earliest known fragment of biblical text on a tiny silver amulet (seventh century BC) and sarcophagy to Islamic jewelry, major Impressionists and photography - seem almost to be hidden in a maze of different entryways. Yet the original architecture is itself an admired work of art that no one wanted to mar. As sketched out by Alfred Mansfeld and Dora Gad in the late 1950s, the museum was intended to resemble a low Arab village on the commanding hill that it occupies over Jerusalem.

In a fiercely Modernist mode, Mansfeld created a mathematical system in which low, square, flat-topped buildings, clad in Jerusalem limestone, sprawled in modules over the Hill of Tranquillity in much the way an Arab village grows around a set of courtyards.

The design is a classic of postwar Modernist structuralism, said Zvi Efrat, who is head of the School of Architecture at Bezalel Academy in Jerusalem and whose firm worked on the current project. "Mansfeld created an organic, vernacular architecture that sits beautifully in the landscape but allowed growth without changing character," he said.

The buildings, like the very idea of the museum itself, were part of the new country's radical ambition of socialist humanism, a symbol of what Efrat calls "the heroic period" of Israeli architecture in the 1950's and 1960s, when new public structures were forged for a new Zionist state.

But Mansfeld, who died in 2004, also had the somewhat pretentious idea of an Acropolis, with a hilltop entry reached only after a long, hot march up a central promenade of uneven stones, pavement and steps that rise nearly four stories to the summit. To find the galleries you must first negotiate a plaza and discern the entrance at the top. Even then you have to walk down a level.

It's a lot of labor before you hit the art.

And then when you do, it's easy to get lost. The current configuration confuses large numbers of the half-million or so people who visit the museum every year - down from nearly 1 million in 2000, before the violence of the latest Palestinian intifada. Back then about a third of the visitors were from Jerusalem, a third from the rest of Israel and a third foreign. Today foreigners still make up a third of the visitors, but more of the Israelis are from Jerusalem, since the city is still considered to be dangerous by other Israelis.

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