Arts & Culture The Arab Art Issue

Inside the Palestinian Museum

The museum without borders: a new perspective on Palestine one click away.

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By Vittoria Volgare Detaille

The Palestinian Museum. Photo courtesy of the Palestinian Museum.

When the COVID-19 pandemic kicked in, people worldwide had their first taste of movement restrictions, isolation, or living under curfew. For people in the Palestinian territories, the term lockdown sounded familiar as they had their share of restraints living under Israeli occupation for the past decades. Nevertheless, the virus has translated into even more hardship for Palestine with many sectors badly hit by the crisis.

The first outbreak in the West Bank was registered in the town of Bethlehem. To curb the spread of the virus the Palestinian Authority declared a state of emergency on March 5th demanding residents to stay at home. At the same time businesses, schools, religious and public places temporarily closed down and had to adapt to new challenges.

But there was one institution that seemed more prepared than others. The Palestinian Museum in the town of Birzeit, near Ramallah, put to use its transnational nature to face the crisis and to keep documenting the history and culture of the Palestinian people.

As the access to the West Bank is not always easy, the flagship project of the largest Palestinian NGO Tawoon-Welfare Association, was conceived from its start in 2016 to overcome and bypass geographical and political boundaries. To do so, from the outset it developed vast digital programming, along with activities on the premises and in galleries abroad.

This meant that the pandemic reinforced its already existing global outreach.

In March the Museum shut its physical premises, but in the rollercoaster days that followed it opened its virtual doors even wider than before.

“We lost access to the public on the premises but, on the other hand, because all our programming is online we were able to turn very quickly and produce content for people to consume at home. Of course, this was also helped by our very good infrastructure, which allowed us to work from home”, Adila Laïdi-Hanieh, Ph.D., Director of the Museum, tells me.

Adila Laïdi-Hanieh, Ph.D., Director of the Palestinian Museum. Photo courtesy of the Palestinian Museum.

According to Dr. Adila, although the content was already online prior to the crisis, people did not access it because they thought they could simply visit the museum one day. If the lockdown had a positive side it would be the growing demand for digital content.

And so in the past three months, the institution has organized a series of online activities, virtual tours, exhibitions, contests, educational games and posted interactive videos and varied content about Palestinian arts, literature and history.

All of this has been happening through its website, a rich youtube library, and its Facebook and Instagram pages, all of which are phenomenally active.

Thanks to the museum, Palestine, its culture and history are only a click away.

Palestine perseveres

Designed by Toshio Sato and published on the Land Day in 1990, this poster features a painting by Palestinian artist Burh?n Kark?tly. The artwork depicts a Palestinian woman wearing a Palestinian thobe and a Palestine map necklace. Image courtesy of the Palestinian Museum Digital Archives.

During the lockdown the first thing the museum has done was to launch the MuseumFromHome – PalestinePerseveres campaign that provides online content about Palestinian history and culture. It also represents a unique opportunity to visit the museum and its exhibitions virtually.

The initiative launched with a video tour of the Glimmer of a Grove Beyond curated show. It explores the Palestinian landscape through some of the 540 political posters from the museum’s permanent collection, produced between the late 1960s and early 1990s. In many of these posters, agriculture appears as one of the tools of Palestinian resistance.

During the campaign, believing in the importance of documenting stories before they are forgotten, the museum encouraged people to explore their personal ‘museums’ and histories at home, and invited them to post with the #palestineperseveres hashtag photographs, archives and objects in order to create a virtual album.

“We also provided plenty of general knowledge information about Palestine both with a serious twist for people who want to learn, and with an entertaining family-oriented twist for people who just want to have fun,” Dr. Adila says.

Followers were invited to become artists for a day by sharing works they had created from household materials. The public then voted for their favorite piece, and all submissions were displayed in a virtual exhibition.

Published by the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1989, this poster features a sketch of a bleeding white rose with a caption that reads, “Never shall I forget the Shaheed.” Image courtesy of the Palestinian Museum Digital Archives.

Another interesting activity has been the ongoing 360 tour and 3D tour of Jerusalem Lives, the museum’s first exhibition that took place initially in 2017. Through documentaries, archaeological material and artworks by local and international artists, it sheds a light on stories of Palestinian collective resistance in Jerusalem.

The museum has done such a great job during the past months that the International Council of Museums (ICOM) has  praised it for its creative and effective response to the quarantine.

It has also demonstrated to be a true symbol of Palestinians’ perseverance during the pandemic. “We’re not like any other museum in the world. We are operating under occupation and for Palestinians it’s not the first time, far from it, that an entire population is under lockdown. We went through this in 2002 in the West Bank and in Gaza, we go through it cyclically, and for people from the diaspora we have known this in Lebanon and various other areas,” the director explains.

Notwithstanding the occupation and the fight against COVID-19, the very ambitious museum’s team tries its best to keep on chronicling the history and culture of the Palestinian people. And they seem to have all the right ingredients: “Our museum is modern and dynamic.  Our staff is young, very active, extremely creative and entirely Palestinian. The majority of our senior staff are female and the majority of the staff are under 40,” the director explains.

The museum has been collecting works, documents and visual materials over the years to such an extent that the permanent collection consists of nearly 700 pieces almost all of which have been digitized.

‘All you wanted to know about Palestine but were afraid to ask

The online presence is not new for the museum. Before the crisis kicked in, they had already established two major digital platforms: Palestinian Journeys and the Palestinian Museum Digital Archive.

A joint project with the Institute for Palestine Studies, designed by Visualising Palestine, Palestinian Journeys is an enormous source of in-depth information in Arabic and English about the history of Palestine starting from the 4th century, with a scholarly type of documentation.

Published by the Palestinian Liberation Organization on the UN Palestine Day in 1985, this poster features nine drawings highlighting the universal right to homeland. Image courtesy of the Palestinian Museum Digital Archives.

Thousands of original documents, photos, chronologies, articles and all kinds of biographies are to be found. Prominent Palestinian revolutionaries, activists, political leaders, scholars, historians, journalists, writers, businessmen and poets are featured. “The website is constantly updated, expanded and enlarged and we have some surprise content planned in the near future,” the director explains.

“Pal Journeys is basically everything you wanted to know about Palestine but were afraid to ask.” Pal Archive is the mirror image of Pal Journeys. A digital archive, both in Arabic and English, with the history of Palestine heavily documented from below. “Our team of researchers collects and borrows archives from people, whether paper-based, audio or visual: photo albums, NGO records, journals, diaries, old newspapers, sketchbooks, all relevant to a specific collection. We then digitize it and upload them to the archive.”

If there is a fashion of digitizing archives all over the world, Pal Archive is one of the few with open access to tens of thousands of items. “It is about the achievements of the Palestinian society locally and in the diaspora, from the late 1800s until the present day. It is a fascinating and fun archive. It allows you to touch with your hands Palestinian history and lives,” Dr. Adila explains.

Another great accomplishment of the museum is to have given life in April 2019, in cooperation with the British Library, to the first-ever paper conservation studio in the West Bank. Here they conserve, repair, preserve and digitize endangered paper materials and thousands of documents.

A modern architectural gem blending with nature

In  May, the Palestinian Museum celebrated its fourth birthday. The beautiful building, designed by Irish firm Heneghan Peng, is not only the first green structure in Palestine, but the first green museum in the MENA region as well. In 2017 it was given the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) gold certification as a sustainable building.

In August 2019, it won the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, which is not surprising at all. The horizontally elongated and zigzagging building made of the bright local limestone is a modern architectural gem that blends seamlessly with the nature surrounding it.

The Palestinian Museum blends nature with architecture. Photos courtesy of the Palestinian Museum.

Sitting on a green and blooming hill next to the Birzeit University, the museum overlooks the Mediterranean Sea, which people in the West Bank don’t have direct access to.

The surrounding gardens and agricultural terraces boast a selection of seventy plants native to Palestine or that have arrived there over the centuries, from indigenous olive trees to thyme, pomegranates, geraniums, chamomile, lavender and rosemary, to name but a few.

Walking around the garden, one can spot permanent art installations by Arab artists. One of them is a mintar, a watchtower once central in Palestinian agricultural life, conceptualized by artist Sliman Mansour in 2019.

Also part of the outdoor area is  an amphitheater with stone benches that integrate into the surrounding nature.

A new perspective on Palestine

Inside the museum. Photos by Hareth Yousef, courtesy of the Palestinian Museum.

With the ongoing crisis, the museum stays closed but the staff continues to telework. In the beginning of July they launched, in collaboration with the Palestine Heritage Museum in Jerusalem, the exhibit Printed in Jerusalem: Mustamloun. It was supposed to be held in April 2020 but plans had to be put on hold and now it will be online. It explores issues of modernity, cultural activity, international relations, and censorship in the Holy City.

Waiting for the virus-related restrictions to ease, the museum keeps the history of Palestine alive online and it welcomes donations of collections and collaborations with other organizations all over the world.

“Our main mission is to produce and disseminate knowledge and a new perspective on Palestine… People have a lot to learn from what Palestinians have achieved against all odds. It’s a marvelous story of steadfastness for people that have managed to survive only with the strength of hard work, educatio, and belief in their cause. This is what the museum is about: providing all these narratives of humanity.”      

Vittoria Volgare Detaille is a freelance journalist and translator. After having studied Arabic Literature at the University of Napoli “L’Orientale”, she collaborated with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and with the Italian Press Agency ANSA. She has lived for more than 10 years in the Middle East (Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, Libya and Kuwait) and is currently based in Singapore.

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