Curator's Picks: The People Behind Israel Museum's Treasures Display Their Favorite Works

The museum celebrates five decades of art with a tribute to the people whose approach and careful planning ensure that each work receives its proper place.

A roaring lion, the Isaiah Scroll and even a very famous urinal – the Israel Museum in Jerusalem is this year celebrating five decades of art and countless exhibitions. Thousands of painters, sculptors and multidisciplinary artists have crossed the institution’s threshold, and their works are collected, compiled and placed on view by those behind the scenes of the museum: the curators. Just as there’s a talented artist behind every fine work of art, behind every exhibition there’s a curator whose sensitive approach and careful planning ensure that each work receives its proper place. In this special project, curators of the Israel Museum choose a work in the museum’s possession that has affected them deeply and talk about the responsibility of connecting art with the public.

Mira Lapidot, Chief Curator of the Fine Arts Wing

Chana Orloff, “The Pipe Smoker,” bronze sculpture, 1924

“Chana Orloff’s sculpture has stood at the entrance to the museum’s Youth Wing for many years. He’s an elderly man, bearded, with a round belly, who greets the visitors with a bemused look. His bald pate is shiny from being touched so often by passersby who run their hands fondly across the bronze head. I chose this work because it represents a different approach to the relations between the audience and a work of art: a close, intimate relationship based on contact, which alters the work itself. It’s not the usual relationship to art in a museum, where you have to stay ‘at arm’s length’ from the work. The sculpture’s location proves the power of good positioning.”


Haim Gitler, Chief Curator of Archaeology

Philistine coin, fifth century BCE

“The images on some ancient coins create an illusion that brings to mind the work of the modern artist M.C. Escher. For example, a silver coin from Philistia (the southern coastal strip of Palestine, which included the cities of Ashdod, Ashkelon and Gaza) depicts the head of a lion from the left and from the right the animal’s rear body, creating the illusion of a whole lion. However, turn the coin 90 degrees counter-clockwise, and the image becomes the head of a bearded man and the lion’s body becomes a helmet.”

Daisy Raccah-Djivre, Chief Curator of Jewish Art and Life

Synagogue from Cochin, India, 16th century

“All the interiors of our reconstructed synagogues are extremely impressive, but the one I feel closest to is the Kadavumbagam synagogue, which was brought from Cochin, in southern India, where it was in use from the 16th to the 20th century. The synagogue is unique for having two reader’s platforms, one for Sabbath and holidays, the other for daily prayers. The synagogue is rich in painted wooden carvings in a style that combines local motifs with foreign influences. In the 1950s, when the Cochin Jews immigrated to Israel, the building became a storeroom for ropes and mats, and was only spared destruction by a miracle. In 1991, in an unprecedented operation, the surviving synagogue’s interior was transferred to the Israel Museum and reconstructed. I had the great privilege of being part of the process. The wooden carvings had been covered with many layers of paint, and I will never forget the wonder of seeing the magnificent paintings that were revealed in the cleaning and preservation process.”

Tali Gavish, Head of the Ruth Youth Wing for Art Education

Lynn Chadwick, “Roaring Lion,” bronze sculpture, 1960

“I smile every time I pass by ‘Roaring Lion,’ which is located in the museum’s Billy Rose Art Garden. Among the impressive, inspirational sculptures in the Art Garden is this work, an abstraction of a lion figure, modest and touching in its simplicity. The encounter with this sculpture takes me back to my childhood – it continues to awaken the interest and curiosity of a little girl who comes for a visit to the big museum and doesn’t want to leave.”

Adolfo Roitman, Curator of the Dead Sea Scrolls and head of the Shrine of the Book

Isaiah Scroll, parchment, first century BCE, Qumran Cave 1

“Even after 20 years in the Shrine of the Book, I am still amazed at the fact that this great national treasure was entrusted to me. After all, this is the only biblical manuscript that was found complete at Qumran, the world’s oldest copy of the Book of Isaiah. This book is considered a pillar of Jewish and Christian civilization alike, so it’s my good fortune to be responsible for one of the world’s major spiritual and cultural assets.”

Shlomit Steinberg, Senior Curator of European Art

Portrait of the artist Avraham Newman by the painter Szmuel Herszberg, 1904, oil on canvas

“I was surprised at the power and freshness of this painting by Herszberg, when I saw it last year after it had been cleaned in the museum’s restoration laboratory. Influences of Japanese screens, colorfulness borrowed from Bonnard, and a surprising tendency to abstraction all came together. I placed it at the center of the exhibition ‘The Artist and the Studio’ [on view until August 4], because it presents the painter as an almost demonic being in a bold, seemingly contemporary composition. The subject is the Polish-born landscape painter Avraham Newman, a tempestuous figure of great charm who taught for a time at the Bezalel art school in Jerusalem in the 1920s. He was murdered in the Kharkov ghetto in 1942 when he refused to obey the order of a Nazi soldier to stop whistling.”

David Mevorah, Senior Curator of Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine Periods

Funerary busts from Beit She’an, Roman period, third century CE, stone

“This peculiar group is a collection of portraits sculpted in simple stone found over the years at Beit She’an. They are the work of local artists who tried to depict in a straightforward style the likenesses of the deceased whose graves they adorned. I’ve always been captivated by the simple lines, the nave or ridiculous expressions and the somewhat childish character of this group. In my view, they express more feeling and humanity than the magnificent classical works around them.”

Adina Kamien-Kazhdan, Curator, Stella Fischbach Department of Modern Art

Marcel Duchamp, “Fountain,” 1917/1964, Assisted Readymade: porcelain urinal turned on its back

“Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’ is an icon of 20th-century art, because it redefined the role of art and the artist, spurned the moral criteria of the bourgeoisie and challenged the validity of the art establishment. By overturning the urinal, Duchamp annulled its utilitarian role and ‘created a new thought for that object.’ He injected the spirit of Dada into New York and prepared the ground for future conceptual art. The Israel Museum has a first-rate Dada and Surrealism collection, donated by the gallerist-collector-researcher Arturo Schwarz, who worked with those artists. In the Dada and Surrealism galleries I chose to place ‘Fountain’ on the doorpost, as Duchamp did in his studio, in order to avoid a traditional positioning on a base and also to perform an iconoclastic act in the spirit of Duchamp by placing the work as a kind of mezuzah.”