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Israel: Culture imbibed through museums

I am constantly astounded by Israel’s achievements, including the fact that this little country has the highest number of museums per capita in the world – more than 200.  Politics and religion aside, many of these cultural institutions are breathtaking in the scope of their offerings of history, culture, art, fashion, sociology, science and technology.   One cannot visit any of them without having a sense of awe and wonderment at the wealth of knowledge they impart to the visitors. And in a world filled with astonishing architectural wonders, some of those in Israel equal, or surpass, many international ones.

Highlighting the best-known and most frequented museums is not an easy task.  The two that spring instantly to mind, sharing that distinction, are probably (or at least in my opinion) the IsraelMuseum and Yad Vashem, both sited in my favourite city, Jerusalem.  Each one is unique, each offers a glimpse into another world, each makes an unforgettable impact on its visitors.   But there are also many others catering to a wide variety of interests and opinions, and satisfying many needs.

So let’s go virtual museum-hopping, to the less well-known but all of which offer a plethora of exciting and even sensual experiences.

Jerusalem’s IsraelMuseum, which houses the Shrine of the Book, is the country’s largest cultural institution, internationally renowned and ranked among the world’s leading art and archaeology museums.  But how many of us know that Jerusalem is also home to – wait for it – the Museum of Islamic Art?   Interesting, isn’t it?  Located next to the Israeli president’s official residence, this museum contains one of the world’s most impressive archives of Islamic art., all in chronological and geographical order, directing the visitor through various periods of Islamic art.  The museum also boasts a vast collection of antique watches, which became famous in 1983 when professional burglar Naaman Diller managed to steal 100 watches valued at US$204 million from the exhibition. Fortunately they were recovered but only after his death, which has left people wondering what if any collector’s joy / financial benefit he derived from them, considering that he simply stashed them in safety deposit boxes around the world.

Time now to move on.  Israel is a tiny country – smaller than the KrugerNational Park – so it’s not a problem for us to travel way up north, to Haifa, to MadaTech, Israel’s hands-on National Museum of Science, Technology and Space.  Housed in the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology’s first home, this funky museum, a hit with children, adults and everyone in-between, is without a doubt Israel’s best location for making science fun, the place to explore, experience, discover and learn through play, filled with scores of science-themed exhibits and 3D movies.

Of MadaTech, 2005 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry Prof. Aharon Ciechanover said:  “Israel’s economic motor is fuelled by science & technology. If the continuum on which universities rely, kindergarten-elementary school-high school, breaks down at any point, these will not survive. That is why MadaTech’s success in engaging young Israelis in science, exposing them in a fascinating way, to incredible scientific developments, removing their fears and getting them to develop a love for science & technology, is so vitally important.” 

After a satisfying munch of some of the delicious pastries, cakes and cookies for which Haifa is world famous, we go south again, to the new wing of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, opened in 2011.  When as many people hate something as love it, it must be a success – and that’s where this museum ranks, its pieces heralding a never-ending topic of debate, discussion, vehement opinion and love/hate relationships.

Founded in 1932 and still today one of Israel’s leading art and culture institutions, the Tel Aviv Museum of Art represents some of the leading artists of the first half of the 20th century and many of the major movements of modern art in this period: Fauvism, German Expressionism, Cubism, Futurism, Russian Constructivism and Surrealism, as well as French Impressionism and Post-Impressionism.  Picasso, Jean Miro and Chaim Soutine share space with Reuven Rubin, Yigal Tumarkin, Gal Weinstein and Michal Rovner.  And there’s Klimt, Kandinsky, Lichtenstein and Jackson Pollock as well – a veritable treasure chest.

Not all of Israel’s collections are traditional or conventional, which of course mirrors the country’s citizens and civic culture.  This is evident when we visit the Museum on the Seam, the country’s most provocative museum.  Situated on the road separating Jewish west Jerusalem from the Arab neighborhoods in the city’s east, on the edge of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish Mea Shearim quarter and opposite an Arab neighborhood, Sheikh Jarrah, it was originally a Turkish-era mansion designed by a Palestinian.  After 1948 it became a front-line Israeli military command post when Jerusalem was divided into Israeli- and Jordanian-controlled areas.

In addition to offering dramatic views of the city, this “socio-political museum” holds exhibitions aimed at raising controversial social questions regarding national, ethnic and / or economic differences.  For its recent 28-artist exhibition called “West End”, which examined the struggle between Islam and the West, it managed to bring in works from seven artists of Middle Eastern origin: Iranian, Saudi Arabian, Iraqi, Moroccan and Egyptian.

Another gem: the Design Museum Holon, is already recognized as one of the world’s leading museums of design and contemporary culture. Israeli architect Ron Arad designed the iconic building, itself considered a work of art.  According to a press release, it is “intended as the national platform for the presentation of design, the creation of a significant exhibition collection, the reflection of Israeli design in the context of world design, and the endorsement of the importance of design in a young emerging state.”

We continue our tour with an unforgettable experience at Holon’s Israeli Children’s Museum which has welcomed well over one million visitors since 2011. It describes itself as an “educational and cultural institution providing experiences far different than any other Israeli museum.” Totally hands-on, it offers five StoryTrails exhibits in which children can become active characters in the different imaginary adventures.

It is also home to three interactive and experiential exhibits: Dialogue in the Dark (a social seminar on being blind); Invitation to Silence (simulating the sensation of being deaf), and Dialogue with Time (multimedia educational exhibition on aging). Everyone, especially young visitors, has to sit for a “passport photo” before entering Dialogue with Time; and each person’s photo will later be projected onto a large screen and doctored to show how the subject might look in 30 years. Quite fascinating, the Holon institution has taken the experiential approach to new heights: nothing similar to this exhibition trilogy exists anywhere in the world.

Our final visit is to the Umm el-Fahem Art Gallery in the northern Israeli Arab town of Umm el-Fahem, a town which has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country.  It’s a small jewel, way off the usual museum track, yet it has a high-quality gallery showcasing contemporary Arab and Palestinian art, a gallery which has rapidly evolved into a vivid cultural centre, connecting Arabs and Jews with art and culture through contemporary art exhibitions, symposia, creative workshops, and seminars. The Gallery’s aim is to bring contemporary art of all types – not just from Arab and Palestinian artists – to an area that has been mostly devoid of museums of this kind.  Its biggest claim to fame, we learn, was the 1999 exhibition of Yoko Ono’s “Open Window.”

This is merely a smidgen of what Israel has to offer.  There’s lots more.  Something for everyone.  These are awesome.  Spellbinding.  Exhilarating.  A truly Israeli experience.





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