Jerusalem Museum Straddles the Line Between Art and Politics

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Jerusalem’s Museum on the Seam is something of a contradiction. On its website, it says it is as “a socio-political contemporary art museum" that raises "controversial social issues for public discussion.” Its exhibitions deal with social issues like the right to protest, the decline of Western hegemony and the relationship between the private home and the state – often insightfully. The museum's small curatorial team, headed by Raphie Etgar, has been praised for providing a platform for new voices in the discourse about Israel and the Middle East. But a plaque at the entrance of the museum hints at the voices it has silenced, stating, "The museum is situated in a building that was built in 1932 by the Baramki family,” which is Palestinian. How can an institution campaign for coexistence and reconciliation when its existence is predicated on the very injustice that it seeks to challenge?

The building that houses the Museum on the Seam – which as its name suggests straddles the line between East and West Jerusalem – was designed by prominent Palestinian architect Andoni Baramki in the early 1930s. Baramki and his family lived in the building until fleeing Palestine – or being expelled, depending on your point of view – during the 1948 War of Independence. They eventually settled in Ramallah. Expropriated under the Absentees’ Property Act of 1950, the building served as an Israeli army outpost near the Mandelbaum Gate – the sole crossing point between Israel and Jordan. In 1967, Jerusalem's then mayor, Teddy Kollek converted it into a permanent exhibition celebrating the city's unification. When this project closed in 1997, artist and curator Etgar convinced the authorities to make the building into an interactive exhibition about coexistence and then into what it is today.

The history of the building can be seen as symbolic of the history of the city. The previous owner certainly felt as much. Until his death in 1972, Baramki made a point of visiting the building he designed every day, although he was never allowed to set foot in it. After his death, his son Gabi Baramki – a founder of Birzeit University in the West Bank and its acting president from 1974 to 1993 – campaigned for the restitution of the family’s property. Until his death last August, he was also a prominent figure in the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel.

Art is often described as a mirror for our everyday lives. In this sense, it is perhaps appropriate that a museum committed to raising controversial issues wound up being housed in a controversial building. But for some people, it is more about politics than art. Gabi Baramki only visited the building once after his family’s departure from Jerusalem, when the museum was inaugurated. He refused to pay admission on the grounds that it was his property, and after some discussion was granted free entrance.

Etgar, not surprisingly, primarily views the situation through an artistic lens. He concedes locating the museum in the building may have been nave. “But the history of the building reflects the history of the city,” he says.

He argues that returning the building to the Baramki family would not erase the contradictory and conflicting histories of the city. More to the point, he says the building fulfils a larger function by providing an evocative historical backdrop for the art it houses. “Context is as important to the work as presentation,” he says.

The museum holds a unique niche in Israel's crowded art scene, contributing powerful social and political commentary. Exhibited artists include foreigners William Kentridge, Jenny Holzer, Shilpa Gupta and Wim Wenders and Israelis Moshe Gershuni, Miki Krautsman and Yael Bartana. The common denominator of the museum’s exhibitions is political and social awareness, which it feels should inform both art and curation. Its guiding question is: How can art present new ways to think about age old problems?

Etgar claims to be less concerned with the aesthetics of contemporary art than with the potential it offers for dialogue. “The purpose of bringing political art to the museum is to set milestones on the path to (communal) understanding,” he says. He talks about the loss of communal identity, the growth of identity politics and the rise in fundamentalism, as well as the role of the museum in promoting a genuine social pluralism. “The proposal for being called a citizen of the world is too often rejected,” he asserts. 

Still, the question must be asked: Can the museum serve as an effective bulwark against the creeping orthodoxy that Etgar describes? The museum’s current exhibition, "Beyond Memory,"is an explicit attempt to emphasise the importance of acknowledging – and then transcending – memory, making sense of the past but not becoming a prisoner to it. Through past experience, the exhibition attempts to examine "future scenarios awaiting us and to learn from them how to avoid repeating past mistakes,” Etgar writes in the introduction to the accompanying catalogue.

There is something to this. Adrian Baci’s slow motion video installation "Britma" (Scream),for instance, slows time down to an interminable crawl, a reminder that context must shape both interpretation and prediction. "Ursulimum," an 18 minute film by Ran Slavin, combines the sepulchral and science in an eerie retrospective of 3 millennia of Jerusalem’s history. It makes you wonder: What will our descendants make of our present?

It is thought provoking, but the exhibition seems somewhat remote, or disconnected from its immediate environment. To be fair, this is an accusation that could be levelled at any art institution. Museums create the space to think about questions often left unanswered due to the pressures of everyday life. But they don’t always succeed. And there is something overly pristine and sterile about "Beyond Memory." Etgar argues passionately about the role of art and the museum in facilitating community relations on an immediate, rather than remote level and confesses to feeling a distinct irritation whenever he hears the old refrain, “I don’t understand this art.” “The language is familiar,” he insists. “We are all artists.”

Maybe, but this is a difficult proposition to accept sometimes, especially when the language of the art is removed from the reality of everyday life. It is not enough to proclaim that one speaks a universal language. This assertion must be tested, and continuously. The Museum on the Seam is physically a part of its neighbourhood, contested territory on the line that divides east and west, Arab and Jew. But emotionally, this is less so. The museum is a part of the dialogue about co-existence. But it could say more.

That being said, there is something else: the building’s own memory, a personal history that ask to be processed and incorporated into a meaningful collective narrative, one that flows from past to future. The hints are all around: Walls pock-marked with scars from sniper bullets, bricked up windows in the still-elegant facade carrying the unmistakable marks of a conflict that still rumbles. Etgar sums it up succinctly, saying, "As contradictory as the place is, it makes a point. The building is a reminder of a conflicted history. You can still hear the noise of the war.”

Museum on the Seam is located at Chel Handasa 4, Jerusalem 91016. More information is available at www.mots.org.il or 02-6281278. "Beyond Memory" continues until 2013.

The Museum on the Seam.Credit: Emil Salman
Museum Director, Raphie Etgar.Credit: Emil Salman

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