Even during the three years it was closed for renovations, visitors couldn’t keep away from Jerusalem’s Israel Museum. The Israel Museum is Israel’s national museum and visitors and residents alike are drawn to the place as the central repository of Jewish culture in the world and one of the “must see” spots for any visitor to Jerusalem.
According to Museum director James Snyder, even while the rest of the museum was closed for renovations, 500,000 people came every year to see those parts of the Museum that had been updated prior to the overall face lift—the Dead Sea Scrolls displayed inside the white Shrine of the Book; the one-acre scale model of the Second Temple and the Youth Wing.
Last week the rest of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem reopened to the public after a $100 million renovation that involved 400 workers from seven countries who succeeded in renewing the existing campus built in 1965, rather than replacing it.
According to Snyder who took over as director in 1997, “It wasn’t about throwing anything away. It was about realizing the amazing quality of the original bones of the original architectural heritage of the place and building on that legacy.”
Built on a hill opposite the Knesset, the Museum was originally designed by in the 1960s by Alfred Mansfeld, an immigrant and Bauhaus-trained architect, who laid out the galleries in modernist style.
The 2010 remodel has doubled gallery space from 100,000 to 200,000 square feet yet preserves the external features of Mansfeld’s original design. The innards of the Museum, meanwhile, have been completely redesigned creating a far more user-friendly experience.
Many visitors to the old Museum complained about the long uphill walk from the entrance to the galleries while exposed to the elements. The new campus, designed by American architect James Carpenter, features an enclosed route of passage connecting the Museum’s new entrance facilities to a new gallery entry pavilion at the heart of the campus; visitors may either walk up the Museum’s refurbished Carter Promenade or enter via the newly constructed enclosed route, situated directly below the existing Promenade.
Navigating the old museum was confusing, with galleries on several different levels and artifacts sometimes displayed in unaesthetic old-fashioned display cases.
Now, as Snyder explains, “you can stand at the heart of the museum and you will be able to turn around 360 degrees and you will see the entrances to our collections for archaeology; Jewish art and life; the Western fine art traditions; the non-Western fine art traditions; our main auditorium; and our main temporary exhibitions galleries—all in a main 360 degree turn from the heart of the museum, from a place we now call the Cardo.”
In fact, one of the impressive features in the reorganized galleries is the extent to which many of the pieces are exhibited in the open, without the barrier of a glass case between the visitor and object.
Visitors can gaze at a Royal Herodian bathhouse (1st century BCE), reconstructed with the pillars, frescos, mosaics and tiles excavated from Herod’s palace at Herodion. The bathhouse, lavishly decorated and built with the latest Roman technology, includes a raised mosaic floor and earthenware piping built into its walls to provide heating.
The breadth and beauty of the collections on display is breathtaking. The subtle gold lighting that illuminates dozens of Chanukah menorahs from around the world, the workmanship of the four synagogue interiors that are the centerpiece of the Mandel Wing for Jewish Art and Life, the intricate menorah insignia carved on an ancient ossuary and the creativity of contemporary Israeli art in the Edmond and Lily Safra Fine Arts Wing all make for a fascinating journey through the Jewish world. The holdings of the Israel Museum include some 500,000 objects that will be rotated in and out of the permanent exhibits.
The Bronfman Archaeology Wing tells the story of the ancient Land of Israel – home to peoples of different cultures and faiths – using unique examples from the Museum’s collection of Holy Land archaeology, the foremost holding in the world. The collection includes hundreds of objects guaranteed to captivate visitor attention including gold-glass bases from the Roman Catacombs (4th century CE), rare ancient medallions decorated with traditional Jewish motifs, which represent the earliest known depictions of Jewish symbols from the Second Temple to appear in the Western Diaspora.
For art lovers, perhaps the most anticipated feature of the renewed Museum is the establishment of a permanent exhibition of Israeli art as part of the Edmund and Lily Safra Fine Arts Wing. The Israeli art section sits amidst impressive collections of European Art; Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas, Asian Art, Photography, Design and Architecture; and Prints and Drawings.
With all the dazzle of the newly arranged collections, some 21st-century practical considerations seem to have been overlooked, with the parking situation only slightly improved over the pre-renovation era. The number of stalls in the restrooms does not reflect the number of visitors the museum is bound to host, and the black floors in the main hallways show up the dust that’s endemic to Jerusalem.
But the renewal was completed on time and on budget—no mean feat for such a large-scale project that will enhance the cultural life of Jerusalem for decades to come.
Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat told participants at the opening gala that the renewed Israel Museum is a significant part of the city’s return to the centrality of Israeli culture.