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HomeMiddle EastTo Celebrate 50 Years, the Israel Museum Looks Back Much Further

To Celebrate 50 Years, the Israel Museum Looks Back Much Further

Visitors at the exhibit “A Brief History of Humankind” at the Israel Museum. The museum is Israel’s largest cultural institution, presiding over Jerusalem from a hilltop site alongside the Knesset and the Supreme Court.
June 17, 2015

JERUSALEM — A softly lit case displays a small, gnarled implement that is said to be the world’s oldest known complete sickle, dating back 9,000 years. On a wall nearby, a video installation called “Shopping Day,” made by the Israeli artist Doron Solomons and set in an immaculate supermarket, offers a wry reflection on the branding and packaging of modern consumer products.

The two pieces, representing the genesis of agriculture and its latest end products, are part of an exhibit titled “A Brief History of Humankind,” a centerpiece of the 50th-anniversary celebrations this spring at the Israel Museum.

In a country that seems be growing more insular in some ways, plagued by conflict, threatened by diplomatic isolation and focused on its internal divisions, the exhibit tries to convey a more universal message: the story of civilization’s origins and development in the region, and the rare ability Israel and its national museum have to tell this story to the world.

The exhibit is drawn largely from the museum’s vast holdings, and was inspired by the international best-seller “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind,” by the Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari. It presents a sweeping narrative covering about 1.5 million years. About a dozen artifacts, some of them hundreds of thousands of years old and unearthed close by, represent milestones in the development of human civilization, and they are juxtaposed with contemporary artwork from around the world dealing with related themes.

“It is kind of the slow morphing of civilization as we know it,” said James S. Snyder, the museum’s director, adding that the exhibit was meant to show how that historical process “connects to the present and has universal meaning.”

Mr. Snyder, a former deputy director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, said that in the 1960s, when the Israel Museum was inaugurated, very few institutions were dealing both with “the long narrative” and with the avant-garde.

The museum is Israel’s largest cultural institution, presiding over Jerusalem from a hilltop site alongside the Knesset and the Supreme Court. To the right of the entrance is the Shrine of the Book, containing the Dead Sea Scrolls, the oldest known surviving copies of biblical documents. A vivid crimson mirror-polished stainless steel sculpture called “Sacred Heart,” by the American artist Jeff Koons and lent to the museum by a private collector especially for the anniversary, is on display in the front courtyard, and there are works by Picasso and Henry Moore in a nearby sculpture garden.

Starting almost from scratch, the museum has built up holdings of 500,000 objects. It now has a unique collection of Holy Land archaeological finds representing pre-biblical times as well as Judaism, Christianity and Islam; an encyclopedic collection of Judaica; and a distinguished range of Modernist artworks.

Some critics have dismissed the “Brief History” exhibit as a superficial, even gimmicky romp through history with too many gaps. But its curator, Tania Coen-Uzzielli, says that because of where it is and what it has, the Israel Museum is one of only a few institutions in the world that could mount such an exhibit.

The “Survival and Extinction” section offers evidence of the coexistence of Neanderthals and Homo sapiens in the Middle East. “These are our two main actors,” Ms. Coen-Uzzielli said. “It begins there.”

A group of skulls, early evidence of family burial, is matched with Charles Ray’s 1993 work “Family Romance,” a model of a mannequin-like nuclear family with Freudian overtones. A page from the original manuscript of Albert Einstein’s special theory of relativity, symbolizing the cusp of the electronic and nuclear age, is displayed against the background of Bruce Conner’s 1976 video “Crossroads,” with its footage of nuclear tests and mushroom clouds.

Other anniversary exhibits include a retrospective of Israeli art; special projects by six contemporary Israeli artists; and a nostalgic display of 50-year-old Israeli household objects, including an electric blue, locally manufactured refrigerator and a Gottex swimsuit. “It’s ‘Mad Men’ comes to Israel,” Mr. Snyder said.

When the museum opened in 1965, the modern state of Israel was 17 years old, and Jerusalem was a small and isolated town, with its eastern portions controlled by Jordan. The museum’s cubelike pavilions, designed by Alfred Mansfeld and Dora Gad, were meant as a Modernist interpretation of an Arab or Mediterranean village.

It was a more innocent time, when Israel was still struggling to survive, before the euphoric victory in the war of 1967 that turned into a grinding occupation.

The museum was first conceived by Teddy Kollek, who was a chief aide to Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, and later had a long tenure as Jerusalem’s mayor and master builder. The original idea was to focus on Judaica and archaeology, but Mr. Kollek worried that it would be too provincial and pushed to open the museum up to general art.

Since then, Israeli society has grown more fractious and divided, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict more entrenched.

The anniversary exhibits at the museum only hint at the conflict, in a project by the Israeli photographer Roi Kuper called “Gaza Dream.” It shows Gaza as a distant, hazy mirage in a series of panoramic photographs taken from the Israeli side of the border shortly after the war in Gaza last summer.

Some Israelis now ask whether the Israel Museum hews too closely to the mainstream consensus.

A critical article about the anniversary featured in Galleria, the culture supplement of the liberal newspaper Haaretz, appeared under the title “The Mausoleum.” The museum deals “not with the here and now,” the article said, “but with what was and always will be,” while relying on local motifs like the land of the Bible or the cradle of Christianity. While that approach has been popular and useful for fund-raising, the article argued, it raised questions about the museum’s relevancy and its commitment to the local contemporary art scene.

Eva Illouz, a professor of sociology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said that the museum had succeeded in becoming a national institution, but that she viewed it with a degree of ambivalence.

“I don’t think it gives any place, really, to the political and ethnic conflicts of Israeli society,” she said. “I think the next step is to bring Israeli society more into the museum, and not to shy away from controversial topics. Art should not make society look beautiful.”

The museum has tried to be more inclusive. A 2012 exhibition called “A World Apart Next Door” offered a rare glimpse into the lives of Hasidic Jews and attracted 330,000 visitors. The museum held separate visiting hours for men and women to accommodate the strict modesty rules of the ultra-Orthodox public.

A single-day record 12,400 visitors attended an open house at the museum on the day of the anniversary, May 11.

Martin Weyl helped build the museum as a young man, and then rose from being an assistant curator to chief curator to director of the museum before he retired in 1996.

“I remember standing next to Teddy when the museum opened,” Mr. Weyl recalled, referring to Mr. Kollek, “and he said, ‘How are we ever going to fill up these galleries?’ ”

They filled up.

With the completion of a $100 million renewal project in 2010, the museum doubled its exhibition space to 200,000 square feet, but Mr. Snyder said the number of objects on display was reduced, to 7,000 from 10,000, to give each item more breathing room.

Video | Both Sides Weigh In on Greek Debt Talks Alexis Tsipras, the Greek prime minister, and Jeroen Dijsselbloem, who leads the finance ministers in the eurozone, discussed the ongoing Greek debt talks on Wednesday.
June 17, 2015

BRUSSELS — The central bank of Greece warned on Wednesday that failure to reach a deal in the country’s long-running debt crisis would result in a default on its bailout loans and economic turmoil.

The rare public statement by the Bank of Greece came on the eve of the latest meeting of European officials, aimed at quelling the escalating crisis. Eurozone finance ministers were set to gather in Luxembourg in an atmosphere of emergency as they faced the prospect that Greece could become the first to fall out of the 19-country bloc in the European Union that shares the euro currency.

The declaration by the Greek central bank appeared to be an attempt to accentuate concerns about the worsening rift between Athens and its international creditors. There are only two weeks to go before the current Greek bailout program expires and a giant repayment to the International Monetary Fund falls due.

No deal between the sides “would mark the beginning of a painful course that would lead initially to a Greek default and ultimately to the country’s exit from the euro area and — most likely — from the European Union,” the Greek central bank said. That could lead to an “acute exchange rate crisis” that “would send inflation soaring.”

A “deep recession” would follow, including “a dramatic decline in income levels, an exponential rise in unemployment and a collapse of all that the Greek economy has achieved” during its membership in the European Union and the single currency, the Greek bank said.

The goal of the current round of negotiations, underway since February, is to unlock billions of euros of frozen bailout funds for Greece to pay salaries and to service its bailout loans. But those talks have deadlocked while the leftist government in Athens resists overhauls to its tax and pension systems that it says would renege on its promises to ease years of austerity.

Werner Faymann, the chancellor of Austria, told the public broadcaster there that he would use a visit to Athens on Wednesday to push for a compromise between Greece and its lenders and to assure the Greek people “there is solidarity” with their plight.

But a senior European Union official suggested that chances of a breakthrough this week were negligible. “The ball, I think ministers will firmly conclude, is very firmly in the Greek camp,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity as is customary before meetings of eurozone ministers.

Interactive Feature | Timeline: Greek Debt Crisis

“There are so many gaps between the institutions and the Greek authorities,” the official said, referring to the three institutions overseeing Greece’s compliance with the terms of its bailouts — the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

There was “not only a fiscal gap” but also gaps “very much to do also with the structure of the tax system, with pensions,” the official said.

Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras of Greece repeated that his government would not yield to demands for pension cuts. “If Europe insists on reductions to pensions, it will have to bear the cost of a development that will not be pleasant for anyone,” he said.

He added that Greece still wanted an “honorable compromise” and would “assume the great weight of the political cost of implementing an agreement.” But if such a deal is not reached, he said, “I and the government will assume the responsibility of saying the big ‘no’ to the continuation of a disastrous policy for the Greek people.”

In Athens, the standoff continued to weigh on markets. The main stock index declined 3.2 percent, bringing its loss over the last month to more than 16 percent. Greek government bond yields climbed further into territory suggesting that investors expect default. But the tensions had little impact on the wider financial scene: The blue-chip Euro Stoxx 50 index was slightly lower, while the euro edged up against the dollar.

European Central Bank leaders in a Wednesday meeting decided to increase their emergency funding of Greek banks by 1.1 billion euros, or about $1.2 billion, according to two officials with direct knowledge of the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity. The central bank has effectively been keeping the country’s financial system on life support with the funding. The sum is probably just enough to tide over Greek banks, which are under intense strain as nervous savers withdraw deposits.

The intensifying rift between Athens and the creditors on Tuesday prompted Jacob J. Lew, the United States Treasury secretary, to call Mr. Tsipras of Greece to be briefed on developments that could have repercussions across the financial system.

Large demonstrations against austerity in Greece have largely subsided under the leftist government. But a protest against the additional measures being sought by creditors was planned for Wednesday evening.

If ministers fail to reach some form of a deal with Greece on Thursday, there could be an emergency meeting of eurozone leaders in Brussels before a summit meeting of the 28 European Union leaders on June 25.

European Union diplomats said that one stopgap measure to head off further economic calamity was to extend the current bailout program for Greece one more time, perhaps until next year, but that myriad obstacles could stand in the way of that.

Reporting was contributed by David Jolly from Paris, Melissa Eddy from Berlin and Niki Kitsantonis from Athens.

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(via NY Times)