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How to Prevent the Next Israeli Museum From Having to Sell Off Its Collection

Yehudit Kol-Inbar
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An early Iznik blue and white calligraphic pottery hanging ornament, Turkey, circa 1480 (est. £200,000-300,000), one of the items from the collection of the Museum for Islamic Art slated to be sold at Sotheby's.
An early Iznik blue and white calligraphic pottery hanging ornament, Turkey, circa 1480 (est. £200,000-300,000), one of the items from the collection of the Museum for Islamic Art slated to be sold.Credit: Sotheby's
Yehudit Kol-Inbar

All my life I’ve been involved in the museum world. It’s my profession, my hobby, my love and my passion. During the first half of my professional life I established the Department of Museums in the Education and Culture Ministry, and was involved in initiating, writing and participating in the legislative process of the Museums Law, which provides support and independence to the museum’s administration and curators. According to the Museums Law, every recognized museum can sell items from its collections, and is even allowed to use the money for other purposes. Although that option is an exception and must be explained – it does exist.

Why does a museum reach a situation in which it sells part of its collection, and not in order to purchase other works for the collection? Museums by definition are not profitable. A museum usually displays about 20 percent of its collection in its permanent exhibition. The handling and maintenance of the collection is very expensive, and requires outstanding professionals.

At best, the budget is based on one third support from the government, one third from the local authority, and one third from independent revenues. In the case of the Museum for Islamic Art in Jerusalem, less than 20 percent of the budget is provided by public authorities. Vera Salomons, who established the museum and its collection in memory of Prof. Leo Arie Mayer, took that into account and even established a foundation for maintaining the museum.

But over the years those funds have gradually been drying up. The museum, like almost all the museums in Israel, is finding it hard to survive. The public budgets are insufficient, donations from private individuals and foundations have declined sharply, and the independent revenues cannot close the gap.

There are museums in which the collection is neglected. I recently saw one such museum. In the past it had a lovely collection and exhibit – now the entire exhibit is in a state of ruin and the situation in the collections room borders on the catastrophic. A few months ago one of the world’s most important Far Eastern art collections, the Wilfrid Israel Museum of Asian Art and Studies in Kibbutz Hazorea, was stolen. We can assume that one reason for the theft is that there was no security guard. I viewed some items from an important collection belonging to this small and lovely museum, while visiting an exhibit in the United States. Recently I was traveling on one of Israel’s highways and saw a handwritten sign directing people to a sale of authentic items. Once there was a museum there. During the period of the coronavirus and the lockdown the situation became dire. Professionals are being laid off, and there is no savior.

It’s easy and unprofessional to blame the museums, and especially the Museum for Islamic Art. The accusing finger should be pointed at the Culture Ministry and the local authorities. They could have increased the budgets, directed the schools to study part of the time in the museums, thus enabling more “capsules” of small groups on the one hand, and independent revenues for the museum on the other.

With proper handling, this sale can be prevented, by increasing support or helping to find a donor (there are 157,000 millionaires and about 10 billionaires in Israel), who would purchase some of the items and donate them to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem for example. That way everyone would benefit.

Yehudit Kol-Inbar was the director of the Museums Division at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial.

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