Why the world needs a Palestine museum

Why the world needs a Palestine museum
Comment: Museums are an important part of any nation's identity, and even constitute a claim to that identity. This is why museums about Palestine are important, says Karl Sabbagh.
4 min read
06 May, 2015
The foundation stone for the new Palestine museum was unveiled in 2013 [Abbas Momani]

In 2007, 10 young American architects came up with 10 designs for a building to house a Museum of the History of Palestine in Washington DC.

The site selected was a triangle of land across the road from the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, not far from the National Museum of the American Indian, another indigenous people whose lands were taken by foreigners.

The designs used the site in imaginative ways, each of them different but all of them displaying the rich history of Palestine over several floors of galleries and displays.

A pipe dream?

It was ludicrous to think the US Congress would approve of a new museum about Palestine in Washington's Museum Mile.

The whole project was, of course, a fantasy. It was ludicrous to think the US Congress, who have to approve any new museum in Washington's Museum Mile, would be able to resist the pro-Israeli pressure that would undoubtedly be employed if such a museum were to be situated in the heart of the US capital.

But the sheer detail of the many plans, renderings and descriptions produced by the architects, fourth year students at Roger Williams University, RI, gave the project more reality than it had when I came up with it in 2005.

I thought the idea for the museum in the West would be an effective way of reaching people who had never read a book on Palestine, and who were constantly bombarded with only one narrative, the story of the Jews' association with Palestine.

Every aspect of the story of Palestine could be turned into a vivid and entertaining tableau or display. From Canaanite times till today, Palestine has been the scene of world-changing events - religious, political, military and cultural - and for a tiny country its role in shaping Western culture and politics has been enormous.

I even toyed with the off-the-wall idea that visitors could be offered a "Checkpoint Experience" in which they would be compelled to wait around for a couple of hours in a hot dusty area, shouted at by teenagers carrying guns, before they were allowed in.

Last month, the designs for a Museum of the History of Palestine were displayed at the Palestine Museum of Natural History in Bethlehem. I gave a talk to an audience who thought it was just what the world needed. A member of the audience asked "Why isn't one of the Gulf sheikhdoms making this wonderful project happen?"

But museums are expensive. Even if, like this one, they don't contain priceless artefacts or works of art, they still require world-class buildings, and expensive design and conceptual work. Perhaps I went about it the wrong way, thinking big instead of starting small.

Mazin's museum is the opposite. In a few rooms on a piece of ground overlooking Bethlehem he has assembled collections of Palestinian plants and wildlife, publishing research in learned journals, taking school classes on tours, accepting specimens from local people, and not worrying about the fact that he hasn't yet got a posh new building to house them in and a maintenance budget running into the hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.

The Palestine Museum, Birzeit

Palestinians are a people with all the characteristics of a nation.

Two days after I visited Mazin's museum and gave a talk about mine, I was in another museum, the Palestinian Museum, which has an actual building, a planned opening and two exhibitions in the works. This is at Birzeit, on the grounds of the university campus.

As I walked around the half-finished building with the director, Jack Persekian, I looked out at the sweep of the land between the West Bank and the Mediterranean, mainly now in enemy hands. I say "enemy" because how else can one describe Israel at a time its war on the Palestinians has rarely been more vicious?

This museum will develop themes from Palestinian lives, both current and past, using the skills of designers, writers, photographers, scientists and artists, to remind Palestinians and the small number of tourists who visit it, that we are a people with all the characteristics of a nation, and that those characteristics are derived from the history, geography and natural environment of the territory between the Jordan and the Mediterranean.

Museums are "fashionable" at the moment. Certainly in the UK, Europe or the US, where my museum would be placed, the family day out is a tradition at half term and in school holidays, and the attraction of a museum about "the Holy Land" could be considerable.

I think these three ideas provide evidence that Palestinians have "something to say." Each of them would provide a rich, layered experience combining science, art, history, anthropology, archaeology and politics.

Together they make up an identity that has survived and, perhaps, even been strengthened by a century of denial, persecution and dispersal. That is perhaps something for Palestinians to be proud of.