The Israel Museum: One for the ages


In the late 1950s, when Teddy Kollek took on the challenge of establishing a major art museum in Jerusalem, he might have been whistling in the desert wind. The state of Israel had yet to come of age and Kollek, then director-general of the prime minister’s office under David Ben-Gurion, had yet to become mayor of the historic city.

Kollek thought his fledgling nation had to have a prestigious showcase for art of high quality and global reach, on par with the best museums in cultural capitals around the world. There weren’t many believers in his dream, but he persevered, and the Israel Museum opened in 1965 — the same year Kollek launched his 28-year career as Jerusalem’s mayor and his 31-year tenure as the museum’s president.

Nestled in a 20-acre site in the hills of West Jerusalem near the Knesset, or Parliament, and the Supreme Court, the museum is now Israel’s largest cultural institution. Home of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the definitive trove of Holy Land archeology and a broad collection of fine art and Judaica, it has amassed a 500,000-piece collection while growing into a 585,000-square-foot establishment with a sprawling sculpture garden that feels far removed from the hubbub of the central city.

And now the museum is celebrating its 45th birthday with the completion of a $100-million expansion and renovation. Led by James Carpenter Design Associates of New York and Efrat-Kowalsky Architects of Tel Aviv, it encompasses 85,000 square feet of new entry facilities and 200,000 square feet of enlarged and reconfigured galleries, completely re-installed with familiar treasures and recent acquisitions.

Two specially commissioned contemporary works by international art stars have also arrived. “Turning the World Upside Down, Jerusalem,” a giant hourglass-shaped steel sculpture by Indian artist Anish Kapoor, stands on the museum’s highest plaza, its shiny surface reflecting and reversing views of the surrounding area. “Whenever the Rainbow Appears,” an installation of 360 paintings by Iceland’s Olafur Eliasson that represent the spectrum of light visible to the human eye, covers the 44-foot-long wall at the end of a new passageway from the entrance of the museum to the galleries.

“This is the most ambitious undertaking in our history,” says James S. Snyder, an American who has directed the museum since 1996, after 22 years at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. “Teddy Kollek started the museum at a crazy time, when Israel was barely bar mitzvah age,” he says of the founder, who died in 2007. “I would like to think that he would be amazed and delighted that his vision is actually coming to pass.”

Snyder has a lot to brag about. The museum has an annual operating budget of about $25 million and is well past the halfway point in a campaign to increase its endowment to $150 million from $75 million. Membership numbers a mere 8,000, but there are support groups in 14 countries, and 455,373 visitors came last year, when most of the facility was closed for construction.

The nattily attired director, who speaks in bursts of earnest enthusiasm, sometimes says the massive renewal project isn’t about architecture or getting bigger. What he means is that the museum had no need for splashy architecture or expanding for the sake of expansion. The goal was to clarify a vast swath of cultural history in a powerful, elegantly low-key setting.

“We needed a transformative change that would allow the richness of the collection to shine,” he says. “The Israel Museum used to be described as many museums under one roof. Now it has been recast as a continuum — of history and culture, of region set into the world, of today set into the past. All things are connected in material culture and time. We are universal in our collecting, and we want to underscore this notion of how objects across time and place can resonate with one another.”

The collection’s timeline runs from the prehistory of the ancient Near East to international contemporary art. In the archeology wing, objects tracking the development of Judaism, Christianity and Islam appear in close proximity. The Jewish art and life section offers contemporary photographs of young Israelis as a counterpoint to traditional costumes in a display that grapples with clothing as identity. In the Art of the Americas galleries, a pre-Columbian sculpture of a mother and child shares shelf space with a similar piece by 20th century British sculptor Henry Moore.

Such messages about art’s connective tissue are delivered in an environment that remains true to the aesthetic sensibility of the original architect, Israeli Modernist Alfred Mansfeld. With his associate, Dora Gad, he conceived of the museum as a Mediterranean hilltop village — one that would grow like a village.

James Carpenter, whose firm designed the exterior and lobby of the 7 World Trade Center in New York, is an artistic innovator, known for working with glass and light. But he has adhered to Mansfeld’s grid and preserved the museum’s original proportions and hill-hugging profile in his additions, including buildings for ticketing, information, retail, special events and a restaurant; an enclosed pathway to the galleries; and a three-story pavilion that provides access to the three collection wings. Inside, Efrat-Kowalsky has carved out an enormous amount of new gallery space from the old footprint by a process the director has dubbed “magical re-engineering.”

For Carpenter, the primary challenges were to moderate Jerusalem’s intense, crisp light and restore the original sense of intimacy between the buildings and the landscape. Mansfeld’s vision had been compromised by additions and changes over time.

“The original buildings were solid concrete boxes, interconnected in a way that created some really dynamic spaces,” Carpenter says. “I wanted to create a new vocabulary of buildings that would be transparent, but not in a conventional sense. They needed to be completely shaded.”

The solution was glass buildings shielded by what look like louvers but are actually “light-redirection systems,” the architect says. Designed for the sun angles of Jerusalem, the three-dimensional terra-cotta panels have slightly curved surfaces that “take the light and push it back on itself,” he says. They provide the buildings with indirect light throughout the year. At night, the glass structures are illuminated from the inside, shining like lanterns in sharp contrast to Mansfeld’s opaque buildings.

Mansfeld, who was born in Russia and trained in Berlin and Paris, was inspired by the clean-lined aesthetic of International Modernism. Japanese American sculptor Isamu Noguchi, who designed a sculpture garden funded by Broadway producer and lyricist Billy Rose, brought an Asian flavor to the campus. Frederick Kiesler, an Austrian American architect with an expressionistic flair, created the Shrine of the Book, a cave-like structure capped by a white dome that houses the Dead Sea Scrolls and that opened shortly before the museum’s main building.

Snyder likes to talk about the Israel Museum as a melting pot of “three strains of migratory Modernism.” But he cheerfully explains that the symbolic fusion was mostly serendipitous. Much the same is true of the collection. At its birth, the Israel Museum received a collection of Judaica and fine arts from its precursor, the Bezalel National Museum, and its archeological holdings as a permanent loan from the Israel Antiquities Authority.

“Teddy was not a long-range planner,” Synder says. “He seized moments of opportunity.... In the early years, he was happy to take whatever was offered. That has changed. Since I have been here, the focus has been on filling gaps and ratcheting up quality.”

A powerhouse of ancient art with pockets of strength in other areas, including Modern painting, Surrealism and Dadaism, the museum is putting lots of energy into collecting contemporary art. It relies on gifts of artworks from earlier periods but raises funds annually for contemporary purchases and has launched an active program of changing exhibitions.

Another point of pride is a growing collection of Israeli art. Homegrown art is popular in a tiny country with an energetic art scene, centered in Tel Aviv. In November 2011, the Tel Aviv Museum of Art is scheduled to double its size with the completion of a new wing designed by Preston Scott Cohen, head of the architecture department at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design.

But for now, Amitai Mendelsohn, curator of Israeli art at the Israel Museum, is thrilled to have a prominent place for his specialty, at the entrance of the fine arts wing. “This is a major moment,” he says, smiling broadly as he welcomes visitors to an installation of Israeli abstractions, works based on the body and landscape, and interpretations of memory and history.