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New museum to honor Palestinian history, culture

The new Palestinian Museum under construction in the West Bank will honor the country’s heritage through history and art exhibits.
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RAMALLAH, West Bank — The Palestinian Museum became a member of the International Council of Museums (ICOM) on May 11, making it the first Palestinian establishment of its kind to join the council of more than 32,000 museums — a powerful show of support for the museum’s future activities.

The Palestinian Museum’s cornerstone was laid April 11, 2013, funded by the nonprofit Welfare Association. It sits on about 40 acres in Birzeit, near Ramallah. Once complete, the museum will be the largest institution dedicated to conserving Palestine’s heritage, history and national culture, as well as presenting these aspects of Palestinian culture to the world through modern technology.

The museum is located on a hill near Birzeit University. Designed by an Irish architecture firm, the museum is modern with a distinguished, civilized facade. The architectural style is derived from historic Palestinian agricultural terraces that divided land with stone walls to prevent erosion and conserve rainwater. Several gardens, orchards and original Palestinian flora surround the museum.

Rana al-Anani, the museum’s public relations and media director, told Al-Monitor, “The Palestinian Museum earned ICOM membership after we applied for it in order to put Palestine on the map of international museums, cooperate with similar Arab and international establishments, exchange scientific and practical expertise to develop the quality of work and raise the efficiency of workers by training them in skills that the museum, and Palestine as a whole, lack. In addition, [we aim to] protect Palestinian heritage and culture, in virtue of the international conventions upon which ICOM bases its work.”

Anani said, “Through its activities, the museum will seek to communicate with the Palestinians interested in Palestinian history wherever they are as well as with other Palestinian museums to highlight and maintain Palestinian cultural heritage and benefit from ICOM membership to provide the necessary protection from all Israeli attempts to eradicate [Palestinian culture].

“The idea to establish a museum commemorating the Nakba came about on the 50th anniversary in 1998. But then it evolved into the establishment of a museum for the last 200 years of the Palestinian people’s life and history, documenting their cultural evolution. Working on the project began effectively in 2010, and three years later, the staff was appointed. Its first stage is scheduled to be completed in 2016, and it will be built on 3,500 square meters [0.9 acres], while work on the second stage will begin after 10 years. This will include the museum’s permanent collection."

She added, “The museum’s main idea is to be cross-border and offer the possibility to communicate with Palestinians wherever they are. Events are to be held at other museums, like those in the 1948 territories, Gaza and among the diaspora … to introduce people to Palestine’s modern and contemporary history, through the staff that specializes in this field.” This network will allow people who are unable to travel between cities due to Israeli checkpoints to attend the same events.

The first-stage construction of the museum and program expenses over the first five years totaled $40 million, which was donated by Welfare Association board members, the Palestinian diaspora and other Arab donors, according to Anani.

The museum has already inaugurated several projects and programs, most notably “Family Album,” a project that explores the photographic treasure troves kept by Palestinians in their homes. Many individuals have been interviewed and their photos copied and catalogued in an archive dedicated to the history and culture of Palestinian society.

The coordinator of the project, researcher Haneen Saleh, told Al-Monitor that the idea originated seven months ago as part of the museum’s efforts to document family photo albums that had been damaged or lost, either by the passage of time or as an effect of the shift toward digital photography.

The project’s objective, Saleh said, is to conserve these photos since they represent important facets of Palestinian life and history. The archive is set to open in the coming months.

“It’s a long-term project that is still being worked on. Its first phase began in the West Bank and the 1948 territories, where 3,500 photographs were collected and 85 different families were interviewed,” Saleh said. She added, “The photos were taken in different time periods. The oldest photo we got dates back to the year 1887, and it was provided by Ms. Samia Jubran from Ramallah. She got it from her Lebanese grandmother and it shows two girls celebrating Easter. We also have a photo from 1910 of a famous citrus trader from Acre with his wife, who is wearing a dress she had bought in Paris, which tells us something about the nature of life in Palestine before the Nakba.”

The Palestinian Museum also focuses on the recent history of the Palestinian people, not just monuments and artifacts.

Palestine is home to 51 museums across the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and the 1948 territories, including art, history or science museums. Seven of these are under construction, three are closed for renovation and one has been shut down by an Israeli military order.

Undersecretary of the Ministry of Culture Abdel Nasser Saleh called the Palestinian Museum’s ICOM membership “a great achievement for Palestine in light of the blockade imposed by Israel and the obscuring of its history, culture and civilizational heritage that dates back hundreds of years.”

Saleh told Al-Monitor that this membership is part of the international recognition of the existence of a Palestinian state and that it will have a significant impact on presenting Palestine’s cultural, intellectual and civilizational history to the world.

The Ministry of Culture, said Saleh, will support the museum to ensure the development of its work and the achievement of its desired goals.

In light of Israel's attempts to eradicate Palestine’s cultural and historical identity, Palestinians hope that the museum will contribute to preserving and highlighting that identity.

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