Jerusalem's Science Museum Is on the Brink of Closure

Members of the Knesset Science and Technology Committee yesterday urged the Finance Ministry to allocate emergency funds to the Bloomfield Science Museum in Jerusalem to keep the institution from closing its doors.

"Without help, we will not be able to pay our workers' salaries or our debts to suppliers this month. We are approaching a situation of bankruptcy," said museum director Maya Halevy.

The museum is expecting to have a deficit of NIS 2.2-2.5 million by the end of the year, a shortfall that Halevy attributed to a dramatic decline in state funding - from NIS 3 million in 2002 to less than NIS 1.5 million in 2003.

The museum was established in 1992, with financial backing from the Bloomfield family, the Education Ministry and the Jerusalem Foundation. The idea for it, however, was born in 1980, when Professor Peter Hillman, then a member of Hebrew University's life sciences faculty, gathered a group of colleagues to help him promote his goal of establishing an institution that would present and explain scientific concepts to the public at large, including children.

Since its establishment, some 1.6 million people have visited the museum. The institution specializes in interactive exhibits and also organizes the annual young scientists' competition and hosts exhibitions from around the world. It has 22 employees plus about 40 student guides from the Hebrew University.

Halevy said that the museum's NIS 9.4 million annual budget comes from three sources. A third comes from admission fees paid by visitors - a sum that, despite the recession, increased by 17 percent this year compared to last year. Another third comes from donations - and this sum, too, has remained constant despite the recession.

The third source is public funds, from the Education Ministry and the City of Jerusalem. "This is where the fall that we have no way of coping with has occurred," she said. The ministry's pedagogical administration slashed its funding from NIS 1.3 million in 2000 to NIS 960,000 in 2002 to NIS 360,000 this year.

The city's contribution fell from NIS 700,000 last year to NIS 240,000 this year. The result is that public funding, which used to cover 34 percent of the budget, now covers only about 14 percent - and even of that sum, less than two months before the end of the year, only 40 percent has arrived, Halevy said.

The museum has also suffered from the wave of terror attacks in the capital, which has drastically reduced visits by organized school groups, Halevy noted. In 2002, some 50,000 students visited the museum, about 80 percent of them from outside Jerusalem. This year, she said, only 30,000 have come, mostly from the Jerusalem area. "And because fewer students are coming, the pedagogical administration reduces the support it gives us. In other words, not only are they not compensating us for the damage caused the museum through no fault of its own, they are penalizing us."

Fewer school groups also means fewer visits by families, she noted, since students who have a good time during a school trip will often urge their parents to take them the museum again. To compensate for this loss, the museum has therefore begun taking traveling exhibits to schools in outlying areas of the country in order to expose those children to various scientific concepts.

Havely said she does not blame the municipality, which is suffering its own severe financial crisis. "But on the other hand, does anyone want to close such an important institution, which is properly run and fulfills the goals for which it was established?" she asked.

The answer of the MKs who attended the Science Committee meeting was a resounding "no." But whether the treasury will agree is a different question. In the run-up to next month's final vote on the 2004 budget, is being bombarded by MKs' demands for extra funding for hundreds of different causes.