The Israel Museum and the Loss of Jewish Memory

By Ethan Dor-Shav

Israeli museums tell every possible story except one--that of the Jewish people.

A first visit to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem can be overwhelming. The museum’s renowned Judaica collection, the sculpture garden, the Shrine of the Book, and the astonishing collection of archeological finds reaching back to the dawn of Jewish collective memory and beyond—all these can leave the visitor in a state of awe, as if he has come upon one of Israel’s greatest treasures, a magnificent repository of the nation’s most cherished art and artifacts.
Well, sort of. While asserting that it “fills the role of a national museum” (per its promotional material), the Israel Museum somehow ignores completely what should be the most significant story in the national museum of the Jewish state: The story of the Jewish people. Nowhere in this grand structure is any effort made to present the chronicle of the Jewish people through the generations: Not in the archeology wing, which houses countless relics of Jewish life during the biblical period; not in the Judaica wing, where vast displays of items evoking the mores and modes of life in the diaspora are presented according to abstract categories, rather than historical periods; not in the Shrine of the Book, which apparently has been designated the museum’s “miscellaneous” department, for exhibits such as the Dead Sea Scrolls and artifacts from the Bar Kochba revolt that do not quite fit anywhere else; and certainly not in the rest of the museum, whose galleries of captivating art and sculpture lack any reference to the Jewish people and their history. Instead, the museum’s disjointed presentation celebrates the grandeur of the items on display while emptying them of their historical and national significance.
Stranger still, the betrayal of Jewish history, while particularly striking in the case of the Israel Museum, is by no means limited to that venerated institution. Throughout Israel, museums have abandoned outright the story of the Jewish people, ever seeking other stories to tell, arranging their exhibits and their great halls always according to other considerations, selecting artifacts and facsimiles, selling memorabilia and promoting their exhibits, all according to criteria other than their significance to the grand tale of Jewish history. In the culture of Israel’s museums, the story of the Jews is simply left untold.
Every museum has a “narrative,” a kind of story line which derives from the museum’s goals and dictates to a large degree the content of the museum’s exhibits. In the idea of museum narratives lies the key to understanding how museums in general, and national museums in particular, come to have such a powerful impact in educating their visitors.
In a given museum exhibit, the items on display are not presented at random, but are carefully planned in accordance with the narrative idea the curator has in mind. Like editors, curators piece together a coherent story, told through the selection and positioning of items within an exhibit, and the progression of exhibits from one display hall to the next. In this way they teach visitors not only that a given object is important, but why it is so. An ancient potsherd bearing a religious inscription will possess one meaning in an exhibit devoted to the development of the alphabet, and another meaning entirely in an exhibit about the religion that the inscription concerns. Items on display draw their power not just from their “objective” value, but also—often primarily—from the context in which they are presented. The nature of the connections between objects in an exhibit might be categorical (e.g., on telephones, the Internet and other means of communication), geographical in relation to a particular subject (items from Yemen alongside similar items from India), visual, artistic, or even associative (an exhibit on children’s fairy tales and their influence on the conquest of the moon). Yet, because the presentation of objects in chronological order is an especially effective method of conveying meaning, most museums rely on chronology-based sequences to develop their narratives, whether depicting the artistic development of a painter through his works, or the evolution of a species through fossils.
The importance of a museum’s narratives cannot be overstated. Every year, any major museum can expect hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of visitors—tourists, public officials, citizens from all walks of life, and especially schoolchildren—to pass through its halls, who will accept as truth the information so powerfully presented through the museum’s narratives. By its careful implementation of narratives, a national museum can help shape the historical consciousness of generations.
Small wonder, then, that so many countries are willing to dedicate massive resources to establishing lavish national-historical museums. In recent years, appreciation for the importance of such museums has increased around the world: While most countries boast a variety of museums on subjects such as art, science, aeronautics, agriculture, or even taxation, many countries have also instituted a central national museum to relate the history of the society and culture as a whole. Such institutions not only centralize and preserve the country’s archives and important national assets for future generations, they also help shape the country’s very identity. By way of example, consider the network of Smithsonian Museums in the United States and, in particular, its National Museum of American History; the Historical Museum in Germany; the Rekihaku National Museum for Japanese History; and the History Museum in Athens.
Few countries are as overdue for the establishment of a national history museum as Israel. On the one hand, Israel is a young, immigrant nation whose fundamental national identity has been in a state of flux for decades; on the other hand, rare is the nation whose heritage spans so many centuries, and which has managed to preserve so many, varied artifacts from millennia of kingdom and exile. Having emerged from the economic hardships of its first decades, one might have expected Israel to establish not one but several impressive museums celebrating the nation’s heritage from any number of perspectives.
Yet, somehow, the opposite has happened. Israeli museums barely hint at the extent and meaning of the Jewish people’s vast historical, cultural, artistic and religious traditions. A look at the country’s principal museums reveals that not one of them makes the overarching story of the Jewish people its centerpiece. As guardians of the country’s most important artifacts, perhaps these institutions have fulfilled their minimal duties. But as tellers of the national story, Israel’s museums—and above all the Israel Museum—have failed utterly.
The Israel Museum is the country’s showcase museum. Its Jerusalem location, its dramatic setting and proximity to the Knesset and the halls of government, its architecture, the Shrine of the Book, its sculpture garden, and its breadth of purpose clearly place it a step above all other museums in Israel. Here, more than in any other museum in Israel, we expect to find the Jewish people’s narrative, to feel with unmediated force the magnificent story of the Jews and the numerous milestones of the Jewish experience, as told by the archeological and cultural artifacts, works of art, manuscripts and historical documents in the museum’s extensive collections.
To this expectation, the Israel Museum offers only silence. In the whole museum not a single gallery presents the history of the Jewish people as its guiding narrative. Virtually the entire emphasis is on the presentation of alternate stories, from the development of the alphabet to comparisons of the artistry found in Jewish and Christian oil lamps. In the process, the museum discards the national context in favor of a universal typology of its various artifacts, and blurs the national connectedness within and among the displays.
The problem is made worse by the museum’s overall structural design. For the Israel Museum is really not “a museum” at all; it is, rather, five different museums, each possessing its own narrative, each taking the visitor along a path which never relates to, or even meets up with, any of the others. Immediately upon entering the museum’s main building, the visitor must choose among three possible routes: To the right a doorway leads to the “World Art” wing; to the left, a set of stairs leads down to two other tracks, the “Judaica” wing on the left and the “Archeology of the Land of Israel” exhibit straight ahead. Each of these is a kind of mini-museum in its own right. Two additional departments, the sculpture garden and the Shrine of the Book, are not even physically connected to the main building, but are located instead on the other side of the museum grounds. Fracturing the museum collection among these distinct, unrelated exhibit areas guarantees a complete disjunction between Israeli art, out there somewhere between East Asian and twentieth-century art, and the ethnographic Jewish art in the Judaica wing; it precludes any association of the more modern articles of Judaica with their antecedents, which are scattered through the archeology department; it obscures any relationship between the Kumran scrolls in the Shrine of the Book and Jewish artifacts from the same period discovered at other sites around the country.

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