Jerusalem’s Museum on the Seam Teeters on the Brink

Contemporary gallery prides itself on its sociopolitical relevance in the riven city, but current exhibition may be its last.

Founder and curator Raphie Etgar stands by an installation at the Museum on the Seam, Jerusalem
Emil Salman

Does such a thing as a safe place exist in Israel today? The question is debatable, but many would venture that, if such a zone does exist, it is definitely not on the volatile line between Jerusalem’s east and west sides.

Which is exactly why Raphie Etgar wanted the sociopolitical contemporary art museum he created and curates – the aptly named Museum on the Seam – to be located precisely on that line. It’s also why the museum’s just opened exhibition, “Unprotected Zone,” is so timely.

“This museum was created to connect people. To promote less hatred, less violence and less self-interest,” says Etgar, speaking to Haaretz a day after two Palestinians schoolboys, aged 11 and 14, stabbed and lightly wounded a security guard at the nearby light rail station, and a few hours before a Palestinian assailant would be shot to death while allegedly trying to stab a police officer at Damascus Gate down the road.

“We decided to bring people together through art, which is my mother tongue,” continues Etgar, a prominent poster designer who shifted gears to dedicate himself to this project in 2000. “We could have tried to bring people together through any medium. But art works because it’s universal and does not have to be explained literally.”

The museum is housed in a refurbished neoclassical building, which was built in the early 1930s by Palestinian architect Anton Baramki for his family.

Later, when the city was divided in 1948, it became an Israeli military outpost, overlooking the border between Jordan and Israel.

During the Six-Day War in 1967, the house, caught in the crossfire, was marked with sniper bullet scars that remain to this day.

Since its latest reincarnation, the small museum – which is funded by the German von Holtzbrinck family (through the Jerusalem Foundation) – has focused its exhibitions on such thought-provoking subjects as the right to protest; the relationship between leaders and their subjects; animal rights; memory; the anxiety of existence; and loneliness.

The museum does not receive any government or municipal funding, although it frequently plays host to groups of soldiers, students and diplomats from Israel and abroad.

Getting people talking

“I often overhear people getting into discussions after viewing our exhibitions, which is the whole point,” says David Amichai, one of the museum’s small staff of six. “We deal with social and political themes, and we try to relate them to seams to liminal places.

“We don’t seek to offer any solutions to problems. We want people to think and draw their own conclusions,” he adds.

Founder and curator Raphie Etgar stands in front of artwork at the Museum on the Seam in Jerusalem.
Emil Salman

The title of the current exhibition, explain Amichai and Etgar, is a play on the signs one sometimes sees in dangerous areas under military and police patrol, which read “Protected Zone.”

“We clearly live in an era that is characterized by the absence of security, and yet also by a lost sense of individualism,” says Etgar. “

What do we do within these unprotected zones? Or within the so-called protected zones in which we don’t feel safe? How do we act when we don’t have hope?” he adds.

“We are raising questions about the moral choices we each make, and how those are affected by our identification as a group – be it religious, Israeli or Palestinian,” adds Amichai.

“We are often accused of being a ‘left-wing’ museum,’ but I don’t see it that way,” says Etgar, arguing that eschewing arrogance, and showing empathy for and an interest in the perspective of others, are not meant to be ‘leftie’ attitudes. “What we are talking about are just the basics of humanity,” he says. “We are talking about giving people the ability to raise their heads with some dignity and listening to them.

“It would also be good if we collected the garbage of these ‘others,’ too. That would not hurt, either,” he adds wryly, touching upon the complicated relationship between the municipality and Palestinian residents in the east of the city. “But that’s another story.”

Plans for “Unprotected Zone” were underway long before the recent spate of violence broke out early last month. Since then, there have been about 65 stabbings, almost a dozen car rammings and several shootings – more than a few of them around this very seam line.

“We are not a media operation and not in direct dialogue with the news – but we do try to correspond with the reality around us,” explains Etgar. “True, we conceived this theme before the current violence on our doorstep had begun, but these issues are writ large on the wall.”

The mix of artists represented in the museum’s exhibitions has always been eclectic and included well-known international artists such as William Kentridge, Jenny Holzer, Shilpa Gupta and Wim Wenders. Palestinian artists and Muslim artists from neighboring countries are also brought into the mix, along with respected Jewish-Israeli artists like Yael Bartana, who, for the current exhibition, created an acoustic installation that is mounted on the museum’s roof.

Another installation, in the basement, combines dance film and original music to render a poem by the late Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai, about the spread of pain in endless circles after a violent act takes place. Upstairs from that installation is a powerful self-portrait by Palestinian-Israeli artist Fouad Agbaria, which depicts a man dangling in space, devoid of any background, leaving one wondering about that void and lack of context.

Tired of Israel?

“Unprotected Zone” is poignant not only in its timing regarding current events, but also because it may well be the last exhibition the museum hosts. This is because the von Holtzbrinck family has decided to stop funding the museum from next year, leaving its future in question.

“It seems a new generation at the family foundation has a lot of criticism over what is happening in Israel today, and they are a little tired,” explains Etgar. “I sense they feel they have done everything they could and don’t want to be involved anymore – even with those of us who are flying a different flag. This, too, is a strong statement about what is happening in our country.”

A spokeswoman for the Jerusalem Foundation added: “We are incredibly thankful to the von Holtzbrinck family for their contributions to the Jerusalem Foundation and to Jerusalem in general over the years – going back to the days of [former mayor] Teddy Kollek. We hope we will continue our good ties with them in the future. In parallel, the Jerusalem Foundation is working hand in hand with the Museum on the Seam to find new donors to support their important endeavor.”

“Unprotected Zone” runs until March 1 at the Museum on the Seam, 4 Chel Handasa, Jerusalem (02) 628 1278.