Museum seeks to preserve Palestinian identity through art

The Palestinian Museum aims to be a platform to celebrate and preserve Palestinian culture, and for voices from Palestine to be heard in an international setting

Amid challenging circumstances, construction works are underway for the Palestinian Museum, a project that aims to forge a common sense of identity for the world’s 12.1 million Palestinians, half of which live in the diaspora.

The museum will be a platform to celebrate and preserve Palestinian culture, and for voices from Palestine to be heard in an international setting, said chairman Omar Al Qattan. It will also be a place for debates about the history and society of Palestine, focusing on the period from the early 19th century to the present day. With many Palestinians living in exile, the museum will act as a hub, supported by satellite locations in roughly five global cities, which will showcase its exhibitions and programmes.

“We hope to see Palestinians take hold of their own narrative, rather than allowing others to do so,” said Al Qattan. “It is obvious this is a crucial part of achieving independence and self-determination, a right that every people has.”

The idea for the museum originated in the 1990s, with a plan to build it in Jerusalem in the West Bank. However, following the second Palestinian uprising in 2000, the location changed.

Now, the structure is materialising on a 40,000 sq m plot adjacent to Palestine’s oldest university in Birzeit, a few miles north of Ramallah. Dublin and Berlin-based architects Heneghan Peng designed the modern building, drawing inspiration from the characteristic terraces that shape the West Bank hillsides. The Welfare Association, a nonprofit that provides development and humanitarian assistance to Palestinians, is behind the project.

Construction works are due for completion in 2016, but hinge on the availability of funding. Financial aid has primarily come from individual Palestinians and other Arab donors, the Arab Fund for Social and Economic Development in Kuwait and companies offering in-kind donations.

So far, $24m has been raised and a total of $45m is required to complete construction and meet running costs for the first give years, said Al Qattan. In order to open in May next year, $8m is needed. Once a team has been built and satellites in different cities established, Al Qattan said he planned to start a new fundraising campaign for the museum’s second phase, which will require between $70-$100m.

“That’s a long-term project and we’ve given ourselves 10 years,” he said.

While the team has approached many known Arab philanthropists for funding, some prefer to finance basic needs such as providing shelter and food for the thousands left homeless in Gaza following the most recent Israeli offensive in 2014.

“It’s difficult to counter that, but I think that many people have wealth that can support both things,” said Al Qattan. “I don’t see one thing excluding the other. Over the last 20 years, we’ve shown that the sector has created work, new opportunities, local tourism, and it’s been the best ambassador of Palestine. Build 100 embassies, but nothing is going to beat the effect of a really good film, exhibition or novel.”

When completed, the museum will feature an exhibition space, a library, an outdoor amphitheater, an education court, a glass gallery and a café terrace. Al Qattan envisions it as “a vibrant, welcoming space for visitors, capable of hosting exhibitions, lectures, debates and educational programmes of all kinds as well as being the heart of a virtual and physical network bringing together Palestinians from all over the world.”

There are 51 museums in Palestine and nothing has been done on this scale or has the global feel the museum aims to achieve, according to Al Qattan. “It is an instrument for Palestinians to be able to network and dialogue together, which for a dispersed people is so important,” he said. “We are trying to overcome geographic and political and social fragmentation.”

While most museums are built around existing collections, the Palestinian Museum is tackling themes of historical or social importance to Palestinians and developing exhibitions, educational projects and research around them. At the same time, it is building a collection of artefacts, paintings, photography and films that it can show in satellite locations around the world.

“It was really to bypass the challenges of the occupation as much as possible and to use the power of the internet and technology, but also to use our presence all over the world to our advantage,” said Al Qattan.

A curatorial committee is being formed to eventually decide what the museum can afford to buy, and what people may be willing to give or lend. Al Qattan is hoping to collaborate with the British Museum to receive an exhibition built around the 19th century Palestine exploration fund collection, which includes some of the earliest photographs and maps of Palestine.

“That will be borrowed material rather than owned, which is fine because we are not a repository of national treasures. We are a platform to show those treasures and to discuss them,” he said.

The museum is also helping UNRWA, the UN refugee agency for Palestinians, to digitise a big part of its photographic and film archive based in Gaza. The collection is one of the richest of photographs of Palestinian life from the 1950s until today.

“It’s very unusual to build a museum under an occupation. We’re facing a lot of issues of employment, we are finding it hard to get visas for people to come and stay and work,” said Al Qattan. “Our first director of research was not allowed back after one year of working in Ramallah, so we have a lot of challenges.”  

Photo credit: UNRWA/ J. Madvo