The Natural History Museum in Jerusalem is home to a large collection of stuffed animals, including the last leopard seen in the Judean Desert. It also houses all sorts of exhibits about the human body, geology and nature. But it is no less a museum of a museum – one that has been frozen in time somewhere back in the 1970s, and gives visitors a distinctly different experience to other museums.
Some say it is a moldy experience in a deteriorating institution, while others see it as a subversive experience of value, an institution worth preserving and developing.
“We discover the thirst of the child for the object, the real animal – they are sick and tired of virtual” exhibits, says the museum’s educational director, Dr. Evgeny Roznitsky. “We have real things, a garden, beehive, skins and furs.” But if what he and the museum’s supporters say is true, and that if the city’s plans for the place come about, then the museum will deteriorate even further, leaving its future uncertain.
The city counters that it has no intention of harming the institution, and even has plans to expand its educational activities.
The nature museum has operated in a historical building in the German Colony neighborhood of Jerusalem since 1949. The building was originally a large private home built by an Armenian businessman in 1862 and is well preserved. It is owned by the municipality, but over the years the city’s financial support for the museum has shrunk.
According to a suit filed recently, the city has not provided any budget for the museum over the past 25 years, except for funding three jobs there: museum director, secretary and cleaner.
Two years ago, the cleaning post was eliminated and seven months ago, director Sidney Corcos, who was a professional taxidermist, retired. Since then, the museum has not had a director either.
Despite the cutbacks, the museum continues to operate – even enjoying a modicum of success, considering the circumstances. The museum has about 20,000 visitors a year, and another 6,000 children participate in after-school programs and day camps at the museum.
The 40 people who work at the museum are funded by the René Cassin nonprofit organization, which serves as a city subcontractor for educational workers. In reality, though, it is the only museum in Israel that operates without government funding and without donations, paying for itself.
“It is not an accident,” says Roznitsky. It is part of the way the city has hung the museum out to dry for the past 25 years, he says. “It is the only museum that pays for itself from its own activities. On one hand, I am proud of that, because it says something about the activities. On the other hand, though, the only reason the museum still exists is that we are selling education. In my opinion, it would be very convenient for the city if the museum had a deficit, since then it would have an excuse to close it.”
The museum has faced various threats over the years. In 2011, the city planned to allocate part of its space to what is now the Shalem College. But a battle by the public put an end to that particular proposal.
Other plans were mooted to take over parts of the museum, but they too have been defeated. Now, say employees and a friends of the museum organization, two new threats are hovering over it.
The first concerns the museum’s parking lot, where the Jerusalem Foundation plans to build a large conservatory with an investment of 70 million shekels ($19.2 million). The conservatory will include a restaurant, coffee shop, classrooms and concert hall. It will make it much more difficult to visit the nature museum. Equally problematic is the fact the 17-meter-high (56-foot) building will cast a shadow – literally – over the museum’s impressive garden.
The garden is considered the largest, best cared for and prettiest of the city’s community gardens, and includes plots of Mediterranean spices and vegetables, old trees, flowers and bushes, and a large pond. The lack of sunlight will completely change the flora, claims the suit filed against the construction of the conservatory.
But many local residents support the conservatory project. Some see it as the “least of all evils,” because the large, gravel parking lot is probably the most expensive piece of undeveloped property left in Jerusalem and real-estate developers have been eyeing it for years.
Residents much prefer a musical institution over another residential complex to be snapped up by foreign owners.
Some think the conservatory is a good idea in itself for the neighborhood and will become part of Jerusalem’s “cultural mile” – a strip of cultural institutions from the Jerusalem Theater to the Cinematheque.
Another threat to the museum is the city’s plan to open a center for city teachers in one of the buildings that currently houses the museum’s classrooms.
Roznitsky says the two moves will leave the museum without parking or classrooms, which is a death sentence.
The municipality said the statements about plans to harm the Natural History Museum were baseless, and that the claims made in the report were incorrect, to say the least, even bordering on the libellous.
The museum’s budget has not been cut in recent years, it said, and a new director and cleaner will be hired soon. City hall has even budgeted hundreds of thousands of shekels to expand the educational activities in the museum, and these activities will be planned soon, it added.