From the show. Elad Sarig

A Forgotten Museum With a Zionist Past Gets a New Life

The reopened Beit Hankin Museum’s debut exhibition, Tomer Sapir’s ‘Ministry of Information,’ is a chaotic assemblage of the venerable institution’s Land of Israel artifacts.

The Beit Hankin Museum in Kfar Yehoshua in the Jezreel Valley, shut down and abandoned for 20 years, has now reopened. It is set to feature exhibitions of contemporary art that relate to the collections preserved in the museum. The first such exhibition is “Ministry of Information,” created by Tomer Sapir.

The small museum (which essentially consists of a single room) is located in the school building at Kfar Yehoshua, in keeping with the last will and testament of Yehoshua Hankin. An early 20th century Zionist, Hankin was responsible for purchasing lands on behalf of the Zionist movement. The museum was established in the late 1940s at the initiative of nature enthusiast and teacher Menahem Zaharoni as an institution for visual learning in the field of Land of Israel studies.

It was an extraordinary educational center, with marvelous wooden display cases containing stuffed birds and mammals and dozens of drawers crammed with findings and artifacts Zaharoni had collected from around the Jezreel Valley. An alcove housed Hankin’s office desk, complete with a variety of personal effects. Above this space was an upper gallery overlooking it all.

The museum was a dynamic, vibrant educational site that linked geography and folklore, a dash of archaeology and geology, dried flowers and a lot of zoology (through the wonders of taxidermy), and visual lessons on butterflies and pest control. It was called the Regional Institute for Nature and Homeland Studies.

Over the years, the mission of the site changed. Chemistry, physics and biology labs were established, as were a library and a small astronomical observatory. At some point, a botanical garden and a petting zoo were added, and courses and pedagogical in-service training days were offered. In 1953, a larger exhibition space, Yad Michael, was built alongside the original museum. It provided a hall for lectures as well. It is this space that has now been converted into a gallery for contemporary art.

Elad Sarig

Like Beit Shturman on Kibbutz Ein Harod, which was filled with stuffed specimens of local fauna, over the years Beit Hankin turned into an out-of-the-way museum known to a select few who were cognizant of its Zionist past as embodied in the displays and presentations, which bore a somewhat kinky character. Compared to Beit Shturman, the maintenance of Beit Hankin’s displays is inferior. Most of them are falling apart, broken, yellowed and covered in dust. Following Zaharoni’s tenure, a few other dedicated souls came and went. One placed an emphasis on agriculture, another on ecology. They channeled the work of the museum as they saw fit, but in the absence of a sufficient budget (and visitors), the place eventually closed down. Now there is an attempt to revive it and adapt it to the spirit of the times. Says curator Neta Haber, “It is a time capsule of sorts from 65 years ago, which has now been reopened.”

Tomer Sapir rummaged through the collection and extracted a number of diverse objects, their strangeness both obvious and not. Sapir offers a mishmash take on the various levels of display: the object itself; the photo/sketch/documentation of it; the catalog or lexicon explanation of it; and its method of didactic illustration.

Reorganized chaos

The artistic process executed by Sapir, who repositions the nature collections to mount a reworked exhibition, unravels the logic of the archive. He unties the narrative and sprinkles it in several directions at once, by means of simultaneous displaying of objects of various types, doctrines and methods. Sapir makes near-exclusive use of the objects he found on site, and has installed and displayed them on tables, in cabinets, display cases and shelves belonging to the museum, creating and arranging names. He rebuilds them as aesthetic elements that possess the poeticism of a private world. He presents them as is, without mediation, manipulation, conversion of material or form – only rearranging them, crowding them together or spreading them apart.

Sapir placed display cases crowded with items in his space. They are seemingly haphazardly arranged, on the basis of a formal or aesthetic logic that is related to art, but not necessarily to the scientific discipline to which they belong. Thus, a barrel containing a plethora of native brambles stands alongside a collage of maps, and a very old photograph titled “Fossilized trunk of palm” is displayed next to rodent skeletons and stuffed birds. We find information and instructional sheets placed next to milk crates and seashells, schoolroom desks, a collection of Maariv newspaper cartoons from the mid-‘90s that were for some reason clipped and preserved, animal skulls, horns and snakeskin, a single page from a pamphlet entitled “Anti-Semitism is on the rise,” fossils lying near animal skins, metal and stone vessels alongside a pail containing glass test tubes, the head of a stuffed turtle alongside some IDF magazines about regions of Israel, precious and semi-precious stones and “Articles about the Bedouins.” What was already busy in the original arrangement has been transformed into utter chaos.

Elad Sarig

Added to all this are visual results of activities that Sapir put on for local children over the course of the year he spent working in the space. They were asked to collect items from their home environments. These items were photographed like archaeological findings, even though most of them were dry leaves, construction debris and trash. In the middle of this reorganized chaos, Sapir also fashioned a sort of mausoleum for himself. It is an installation built as a burial plot, an earthen mound and a life mask his own children made out of plaster placed on his face (screened off the side is a video clip that reveals the process), crowded under the table are dry branches, seemingly in preparation for placement on a bonfire. It is very much the transition from the “state generation” to the “me generation,” complete with post-archival rhetoric. Sapir was captivated by the displays, swept up into their living-dead charm, and played with them like a boy choreographing live-action experiences while using inanimate plastic figurines. He sifted through the objects, gazed at them for hours, listened to seashells and then soared through his imagination with the winged animals, grew closer and then farther away, and eventually installed them as they were, only a little different, without spaces between the profusion of items and without any public declaration that he had significantly veered from the doctrine.

In essence, he added a thin veil of sentimentality. It is as if he has been swept up by the charm of the contents. There is no sharp-edged dimension to his rearrangement. Thus, we receive a sort of sentiment-laced list of songs whose stanzas and melodies are mixed up with one another, but there is no doubt – it is the same playlist of sentimental favorite songs on which we were raised.

If the exhibition bears any dimension of criticism of museums and how they mount exhibitions, and perhaps a criticism of native-land studies, then these are concealed by the way Sapir seems openly to enjoy himself with them.

This is an outstanding opening exhibition for Beit Hankin, in the sense that it offers an introduction to the institution, complete with its inexhaustible cornucopia of offerings. Hopefully, upcoming exhibitions will succeed in capturing sub-themes and delving into them in a far-reaching manner that sparks the imagination.

Tomer Sapir – “Ministry of Information.” Curator: Neta Haber. Beit Hankin, Kfar Yehoshua, Jezreel Valley. Fridays and Saturdays: 11:00-13:00

Elad Sarig

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