First Step for Palestinian Art and Culture Museum in Umm al-Fahm

After realizing his vision of establishing an art gallery in Umm al-Fahm, recently dedicating its new and expansive premises, artist Said Abu Shakra is taking another significant step toward fulfilling his dream: a museum of Palestinian art and culture in the city.

Esther Zandberg
Esther Zandberg

After realizing his vision of establishing an art gallery in Umm al-Fahm, recently dedicating its new and expansive premises, artist Said Abu Shakra is taking another significant step toward fulfilling his dream: a museum of Palestinian art and culture in the city.

Abu Shakra and his colleagues on the steering and establishment committee of the museum, which will be called the Almanatar Museum of Art, traveled to London last week to present for the first time the plan they have formulated for the design of the structure to a group of planners at the office of architect Zaha Hadid.

Hadid, who is among the superstars of international architecture and the winner of this year's Pritzker Prize for Architecture, agreed two years ago to design the structure at the request of Abu Shakra.

In the introduction to the plan, the steering committee members write of their disbelief that only now, more than 50 years after the establishment of the State of Israel, the first proposal is being written for the establishment of a museum of art and culture in the Arab sector. At the beginning of the 21st century, they wonder, is it necessary to again write about the importance of an institution for the preservation, expansion and encouragement of Arab culture?

The museum will be erected on a hill in the northern part of Umm al-Fahm, and will show contemporary art alongside the material heritage of Palestinian culture in Israel. It will also be the site of educational, research and documentation activity. The initiators hope the museum will serve as a link between peoples and cultures, and become an important cultural institution in the direct personal contact between individuals.

According to the plan, the Almanatar Museum will be erected on a plot of about four dunams, its area will be about 8,500 square meters and it will include exhibition halls, workshops, a library and reading room, a meeting hall, an auditorium, a cafeteria and a museum shop. On an area of about 10 dunams that surrounds the museum there will be a park and a sculpture garden.

Abu Shakra, the founder and director of the Art Gallery in Umm al-Fahm, sees the museum as a lever for turning the city into a national and international center for Arab culture.

Abu Shakra says he wants the museum to operate at the highest standard in the field, and that the building in which it is located will be a work of art in its own right, which will earn an international reputation for the museum.

Abu Shakra has turned to Hadid both because of her abilities in designing interesting buildings and because of her Arab origin, which, he believes, will influence the character of her work there (Hadid is a Briton born in Iraq).

The first time he approached her, about two years ago, Hadid rejected an offer to come to Israel because of the security situation. However, Abu Shakra hopes that later on in the planning process she will agree to come to Umm al-Fahm. In London, too, the members of the delegation from Israel will not meet with Hadid, as she is busy with preparations for the awarding of the Pritzker Prize in May, but only with planners from her office.

According to Abu Shakra, since his first meeting with Hadid, she has been presented with initial ideas about the character and contents of the building, but the preparation of the plan was delayed by budgetary problems. Money that was collected at a fund-raiser last November enabled the advancement of the planning, and, according to Abu Shakra, it was decided not to delay the process any longer even in the absence of Hadid.

Additional support for the advancement of the planning of the museum has come from the British Council in Israel, which is showing a great deal of interest in the project and has agreed to help with its establishment. The British Council has funded the delegation's trip to London to present the plan and the study tour that will be held in Britain. On the tour, which will last about a week, the delegation will visit leading museums in the field of the documentation of historical heritage and will meet with curators and experts in the field.

In addition to Abu Shakra, the members of the delegation are curator Dafna Naor and architect David Guggenheim. Architect Yasha Grobman also participated in the formulation of the plan and the design guidelines.

The cost of the establishment of the museum has not been disclosed, but Abu Shakra estimates the fee demanded by Hadid will be half a million dollars. He is aware of the difficulties, and not only the financial ones, in the realization of the dream of the museum but, he says, "The idea of establishing an art gallery in Umm al-Fahm also sounded impractical in its day yet nevertheless it was established and has now moved into its spacious new premises.

"I need time out for seven years during which we will train art curators and establish an artistic and cultural infrastructure in the city that will be appropriate to such a museum. The gallery has already developed an awareness of art in the city. Now the inhabitants are waiting and believe the museum will also be built," he says.