Even Empty, the New Palestinian Museum Is Making History

Omar al-Qattan, chairman of the ambitious project, explains why he doesn’t want to turn it into Nakba memorial.

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The new Palestinian museum near Ramallah in the West Bank.
The new Palestinian museum near Ramallah in the West Bank.Credit: Muammar Awad
Shany Littman
Shany Littman

BIR ZEIT – Near the town of Bir Zeit in the West Bank, behind the university, a 10-minute drive from Ramallah on a hill that overlooks the beautiful scenery of farms and terraced hillsides; sits the first Palestinian museum. The building, planned by the architectural firm of Heneghan Peng from Dublin, was designed to highlight the hilly topography of the area, in the form of three low triangles with large windows, with black metal structural support and shady overhangs, and faced with light brown stone.

This is the first building in the Palestinian Authority to meet the green construction standard. The museum’s gardens, designed by Jordanian landscape architect Lara Zureikat, were carefully planted with local plants, divided into terraces, starting with native plant species and on to others that are new arrivals but have still adapted to the local landscape: from olive trees to herbs and fruit trees.

A week before the festive opening of the Palestinian Museum, dancers were still rehearsing inside the building while workmen scurried around them adding the finishing touches. That same day in Israel was Memorial Day, and here too the beginning was in dealing with memory, as the chairman of the new museum and the person who has managed the project from the beginning, Omar al-Qattan, told me as he proudly showed me around the corridors of the pretty building, showing me the exhibition spaces, screening rooms and offices; and asking the Palestinian photographer very politely not to speak in Hebrew because someone might be annoyed by it.

A worker in a gallery of the new Palestinian Museum near Ramallah.Credit: Muammar Awad

Qattan is especially proud of the rooms intended for the collections, which have climate control systems and display cabinets of the highest standards. It is just that for now all these rooms are still empty, and will remain that way for at least the next few months; because the first Palestinian museum does not yet have a single item in its collection or on display. Qattan says the museum did not really open last week, it was an inauguration of the building only – and the museum will open when the first exhibition begins, possibly in October, or maybe later.

“We wanted to inaugurate the building because it’s quite a landmark and we are very proud of it,” he said in English. It took three years to build the museum, “but to get here it took 19 years,” says Qattan. In any case, there was also symbolic importance in inaugurating the building as close as possible to Nakba Day, which the Palestinians mark on May 15.

Son of refugees

Qattan is a Palestinian who was born in Beirut in 1964. His father was born in Jaffa and his mother in Tul Karm, and they became refugees after the war in 1948. They met in Kuwait where they both worked as teachers, until his father, Abdel Mohsin al-Qattan, founded a construction company and made a lot of money. Later they moved to Beirut, but left in 1975 after the civil war broke out. Omar and his brothers were sent to a boarding school in England. He studied English literature and later went to the INSAS film school in Belgium. He directed a few films, including “Dreams & Silence,” which won the first prize at the Amsterdam documentary film festival. For 10 years he worked as a director and producer, and produced four of Palestinian director Michel Khleifi’s films.

In 1998 he took part in founding the Palestinian branch of the family charitable foundation, the A.M. Qattan Foundation, which works in the areas of culture and education and provides scholarships to young artists. He is proud to say that the foundation is responsible for quite a bit of the cultural flowering in recent years in Ramallah and its vibrant artistic scene. He gradually moved from the world of cinema to managing the family construction firm, and today he lives in London and Kuwait.

Omar al-Qattan, chairman and manager of the Palestinian Museum project.Credit: Muammar Awad

“Originally the idea was to build a memorial for the Nakba, this was in 1997,” he says. The Taawon welfare association, in which he is one of the 170 members, is a Palestinian NGO and it was started as a humanitarian funding source especially for Palestinians in Lebanon after the PLO left in 1982. “Then in 1997, as we were coming up to the 50th anniversary [of the 1948 war], some of the older members ... especially Dr. Ibrahim Abu-Lughod ... said we must build a memorial for the 50th anniversary. It could be a museum. It should be like Yad Vashem."

“So a lot of us objected to this,” Qattan continues, “because we don’t think that the two tragedies should be linked in that way and also you can’t really compare things like that. But also because we didn’t want to present a history of Palestine solely through the prism of the Zionist movement, just as I think it’s a real shame to read Jewish history only through the Zionist movement. So that’s one thing. The other thing is that we wanted to celebrate Palestinian culture and the present, young people especially, in a way that would allow us to look forward and not just to look back.” Qattan was appointed chairman of the museum and head of the project.

After it was decided to build a museum and not a memorial site, the question remained where to build it. Naturally, the goal was to build it in Jerusalem. “Even if we were able to build it in Jerusalem, most Palestinians can’t go to Jerusalem. We came up with two ideas which actually persist until today. The first is that we shouldn’t think of it as a central monument like a state museum and actually the metaphor we used is of science fiction. We said that wherever we build in Palestine should be the mother ship. Then we should work very hard to create satellites, spaces, projects in different areas where there are significant Palestinian communities so that we become more like a network. This institution then feeds into this network,” he says.

Also inside Israel?

Qattan: “Yes. Anywhere, because we don’t really recognize political borders and I don’t think cultural projects should. We are not a state institution, we don’t belong to any state and we never will. So we don’t have a political agenda in that sense ... [I] hope we will never belong to a state. I think it should be an independent organization. It should remain an independent organization.”

What will exhibit in the museum if you don’t have collection yet?

“We developed the concept, and I think it’s not something original, of a thematic approach to our programming. That would mean that our research unit would develop themes through discussions, through workshops, through research, and build the programs through that research process and at the same time identify relevant objects that we can either acquire for our collection or borrow. For example, it’s quite a tricky concept; I want to do an exhibition about how women were represented in the Palestinian revolution through art but also through other media.

Dancers practice in a space within the new Palestinian Museum near Ramallah.Credit: Muammar Awad

“So we launch a serious process of reflection and research around this – in visual art in film and how they were represented in fashion, in posters, etc. In that process we also identify things that we might be able to bring in and provide for the collection. So it’s a very gradual process. Again what I am saying is that what we are doing next week is inaugurating the building not for the museum program. We have just appointed a new director, Dr. Mahmood Hawari. He is currently one of the lead curators of the British Museum and he has a lot of museum experience. So he is going to relaunch our program development as soon as he starts, which is next week.”

A virtual collection

A Palestinian curator of contemporary art from Jerusalem, Jack Persekian, was originally appointed as head curator and museum director, but in December 2015 he resigned suddenly because of what was described as managerial differences of opinion. Qattan replaced Persekian temporarily until Hawari was appointed.

Why did Persekian leave?

“We had problems with planning and management, apart from it being conceptually quite difficult. Many people in the field come from contemporary visual art, which is very often blighted by a certain way of doing things which I believe is far too restricted, abstract, filled with jargon, falsely academic. It is quite predominant over culture generally now for commercial and economic reasons. I’m not saying that that’s the fault of the previous director; I’m saying that that’s the way art in the post-modern era is depoliticized, very narcissistic.

“What we want to do is much more holistic, more multidisciplinary. Not just within the arts, it’s much more serious in terms of the quality of the research. We really want to be a research reference. Not in the academic sense but in the sense of people looking for cultural material. People should be able to come to the museum and say I’m looking at this – the photos of the first railway or whatever – it’s what a museum like us should do. But I think also that we don’t have the capacity or the professional experience in the country so we, and I take full responsibility, made management and planning mistakes and I don’t think in the end [Persekian] was able to cope so he resigned.”

The core of the museum is the history and culture of Palestinian society, he says. “We are focused more or less on the modern age, from the 18th century onwards. But that’s not exclusive. If we find there’s a theme that takes us beyond that, before that, then we can develop it. There are lots; you know it’s such a rich history. We think about it as narrow, constricted to the last tragedy over the last 100 years, so little has been done, especially for the public.”

Until a collection is put together, the museum staff is busy putting together a virtual collection and online archive. It started with a small project called “The Family Album” two years ago, in which people were invited to give the museum family pictures, which were scanned and catalogued. The project “was simply designed to prevent people throwing their old photographs away and donating to us as a really valuable resource. And then that developed into a larger concept which was to build a fully accessible digital archive that will allow people to upload photos, film including family videos, ephemera, posters, anything. ... That will be made accessible to both our exhibition development department as well as to external researchers.

“The first curated part of that digital platform is a collaboration we are doing with the Institute of Palestine Studies in Beirut and a design studio called Visualizing Palestine. It is a timeline of the last century and a half, so it’s contemporary Palestinian history, which is a combination of a historical timeline with a more in-depth look,” he says.

The museum will open to the public on June 1. It is worth mentioning another museum that opened its building to the public before it had any exhibitions – the Jewish Museum in Berlin, designed by Daniel Libeskind, and his iconic but empty building attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors.

The outside of the new Palestinian Museum near Ramallah.Credit: Muammar Awad

The Palestinian Museum was funded mostly by international organizations and foundations, and some $30 million has been invested in it so far. “It’s very important that it is independent, that it has the ability to protect its curatorial independence,” says Qattan. It would have been nice to receive money from the Palestinian Authority, but they have no money, he says.

“I think that it is also important to keep institutions like this at arm’s length from any government, even if you agree with it because any self-respecting cultural institution needs to have that curatorial independence. So we are able to provide our own team. It is also important because it is contrary to reality, which is sadly so divided and so traumatized, to have something so positive that is built by Palestinians and financed by Palestinians. Not from a nationalist perspective at all, but from the perspective of a society that is feeling very crushed and disenfranchised. It is symbolically important but also practically because it creates work and it’s a new thing. We are hoping that once the program takes off it will be a success in that way too.”

The land was provided by Birzeit University on a long-term lease. The 3,500-square-meter building is supposed to be only the first stage of the museum. The second stage is planned to be twice the size and will take maybe even 10 years or more, he says. In any case, the museum is the largest exhibition hall in the Palestinian Authority.

I asked Qattan his opinion on a different Palestinian cultural institution that may be built soon, with funding from the government of Israel: the first Palestinian museum in Israel, an art museum in the city of Umm al-Fahm. He seemed uncomfortable with the question. On one hand he wants to be kind, but the connection to the Israeli state makes it hard for him.

“There will always be strings attached. There will always be political interference, or attempts at political interference, especially if they give you money. ... The thing is if it’s used to whitewash, as a PR tool by cynical government to say, ‘Look were supporting something Palestinian, look how democratic we are’ – that’s silly, that’s ridiculous. If he can keep his independence and he thinks he has a right to this tax money, you have to ask him. ... I wouldn’t ask for [money]. This is the government of the occupying power.”

For now, Israelis cannot visit the new museum in Bir Zeit.

“I think that it will be fantastic when Israelis can come here legally because at the moment you are here unlawfully. ... All these are arbitrary laws and barriers. I’m hopeful that one day everyone will be able to visit here. As I say I think that we have a very powerful, very rich and diverse culture and it should be one that measures itself against human history in general, not within the narratives of nationalism or Zionism. I salute any effort, including ones from Israel; I think if it empowers people, they have to take responsibility politically.”

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