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Where do Israel’s antiquities belong?

26 June 2017

On 19 June 1930, Sir John Chancellor, High Commissioner of British Mandate Palestine, laid the cornerstone for Jerusalem’s first national archaeological museum. The American Colony Photography Department captured the historic moment in black and white: Chancellor, perched on a wooden platform, addresses a small crowd of soldiers, sheikhs, and well-dressed society types just outside the 16th-century walls of the Old City. It’s a high-contrast exposure, the kind that shows just how hot the sun must have been that day – the only respite from the summer heat is a makeshift tent, draped high above Chancellor’s head.

At the time, the Jewish Daily Bulletin reported that the ceremony began with a passionate tribute to American oil magnate John D. Rockefeller, whose $2 million contribution would cover the construction of the Palestine Archaeological Museum. His monetary influence would also extend to the museum’s moniker – within a few years of completion, it became known simply as ‘The Rockefeller’. Chancellor declared the institution a ‘veritable treasury of antiquities of a country whose history has been the subject of the passionate interest of all races in the world’.

The Rockefeller Museum in East Jerusalem. Photo: Hanan Isachar/Alamy Stock Photo

Nearly 90 years later, across town in West Jerusalem, a remarkably similar event took place, albeit under a decidedly more modern tent. In early October 2016, the Israel Antiquities Authority – which oversees the excavation, preservation, conservation and study of the country’s antiquities – announced the dedication of the Jay and Jeanie Schottenstein National Campus for the Archaeology of Israel. Not yet open to the public, the campus was taking shape across the street from the Israel Museum, its expansive, tent-like canopy hovering over the 36,000-square-metre complex. Part office space, part observatory, the campus will house the IAA’s offices and library, as well as a public wing, where visitors will see rotating exhibitions, examine conservation labs in action, and tour the IAA’s expansive new storage areas. ‘The Israel Antiquities Authority is this generation’s guardian of the cultural assets of the past,’ IAA director Israel Hasson said at the time. ‘The heritage belongs to all of the public, and it is our obligation to share with everyone the treasures that were safeguarded until now in the storerooms.’

Donors toured the unfinished campus, where their names already adorned empty future laboratories: The Saul A. Fox Center for Ancient Glass sits across from the Ingeborg and Ira L. Rennert World Center for the Dead Sea Scrolls; on another floor, the Shelby White and Leon Levy Center for State Treasures will house the IAA’s collection of nearly two million artefacts. Antiquities were put on display, and signs in Hebrew, Arabic, Site of conflict  and English were installed to give visitors and local press a glimpse into the campus’ future.

But seven months after the dedication ceremony, the laboratories remain empty, construction dust coats the signage, and the inaugural display of life during the Chalcolithic Period has been partly dismantled. If the campus were to be classified as an archaeological era, this might be considered its ‘Limbo Period’. When I meet with IAA deputy director Uzi Dahari at the new campus in late May, he has just returned from a trip to the United States, where he was courting donations to help complete the complex. When asked about a possible opening date, he shrugs his shoulders. ‘We thought the opening ceremony would be a jumping point to getting more money, but the result was exactly the opposite,’ he says. According to Dahari, the $104 million campus is missing about $27 million. Until the money is raised, the campus will remain closed to the public.

Aerial view of the Jay and Jeanie Schottenstein National Campus for the Archaeology of Israel. Photo: Ardon Bar-Hama

Aerial view of the Jay and Jeanie Schottenstein National Campus for the Archaeology of Israel. Photo: Ardon Bar-Hama

Dahari has been with the IAA since 1984, and took on the role of deputy director in 1998. For years his office was housed at the Rockefeller Museum, but about six months ago, he moved over to the Schottenstein Campus to oversee the completion of the project. The two institutions, one a steadfast symbol of Holy Land archaeology, and the other, still under construction, are inextricably linked.

Designed by British architect Austen Harrison, the Palestine Archaeological Museum, or ‘The Rockefeller’, is an incredible example of eclectic Mandate-era style, which successfully integrates modernism and traditional Eastern architectural elements in pristine limestone. Eric Gill travelled from England to carve the museum’s bas-reliefs, which depict the cultures of the Holy Land, and he designed a unique typeface for the Arabic, Hebrew, and English signs carved into the museum’s walls.

The collection, based primarily on excavations conducted during British colonial rule, is arranged chronologically in two long, high-ceilinged galleries. It’s a simple objectbased display, running from the prehistoric era to the Middle Ages – special attention is paid to a few standout finds, including the lintels from the façade of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, carved wooden doors from Al-Aqsa Mosque, and statuary from Hisham’s Palace in Jericho.

In 1948, when the British Mandate ended, Jerusalem was divided between the new state of Israel to the west and Jordanian rule in the east. A team of international trustees was appointed to oversee administration at the Rockefeller, and little changed in that time, though King Hussein of Jordan managed to nationalise the museum in 1966. Shortly after, during the Six-Day War in June 1967, Israel captured the eastern half of the city, and with it, the museum. It wasn’t long before the Israel Antiquities Authority (formerly the Israel Department of Antiquities) moved their offices there, and officially renamed it the Rockefeller Museum, erasing Palestine from its title.

‘The Rockefeller is a place with a complex identity,’ Matthew J. Adams, director of the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research tells me. Located a five-minute walk from the Rockefeller in East Jerusalem, the Albright has been around since 1900, and serves as a home for visiting scholars and researchers. ‘On the one hand, it stands as a symbol of American interest in Biblical archaeology in the Mandate period. It was going to be and is the first true museum of the region that comes from the Western mindset. It’s played a complex role over the last several decades because it, too, has been in different territories: Mandate Palestine, Jordan, and of course now it’s in…’ He pauses and gestures to the air, ‘…whatever you want to call this today.’

Under international law, East Jerusalem is considered occupied territory, and Israel’s subsequent annexation of the eastern part of the city has never been recognised by the international community. As a result, artefacts, antiquities, and excavation sites in East Jerusalem have become entangled in an increasingly fraught political situation on the ground, and are often used as tools to further political narratives or establish claims. This has recently been the case at the controversial City of David archaeological site, where oversight by Elad, a private foundation, has been criticised for its exclusion of Palestinians from the historiography of Jerusalem.

For many years, the Rockefeller was observed as an institution that maintained a ‘status quo’ that reflected the 1954 Hague Convention. The international ruling states that cultural property in occupied territory may not be removed or transferred to the occupying power. In keeping with this decision, the display at the Rockefeller were left untouched. Today, visitors could be forgiven for thinking they’ve stepped back in time when they enter the vestibule – there are no video screens, no audio guides, and original explanatory placards, tapped out on a typewriter, are dotted throughout the space.

At the National Campus for Archaeology visitors will get a behind-the-scenes view of how experts conserve antiquities. Photo: Shai Halevi, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority

At the National Campus for Archaeology visitors will get a behind-the-scenes view of conservation in action. Photo: Shai Halevi, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority

‘The Rockefeller is not enough for the IAA,’ Dahari says, explaining that the IAA’s relocation plans began in the early 1990s. ‘There’s not a place for laboratories, not a warehouse, not even enough parking places. It’s a very crowded place. The other thing is that we don’t know what will be the future of the Rockefeller – if it will remain in the Jewish state, or move to the Palestinian state. According to most of the plans of the Americans and others, it will be removed to the Palestinian state, so we must find another place.’

About five years ago, the IAA broke ground on the Schottenstein Campus. The complex, designed by Haifa-born architect Moshe Safdie, is built into the slope opposite the Israel Museum. Visitors will enter from street level and descend through the building’s 10 floors, mirroring the descent into an excavation site. Inside, visitors will be able to see conservationists at work in the various labs, interact digitally with the Dead Sea Scrolls, and see the vast number of items in IAA’s storage.

‘Here people will gain understanding of the cultural heritage of Israel,’ Dahari says. ‘They will see what we are doing, how we are doing it, and how we are preserving our national heritage. If people want to see beautiful archaeological items, they can go to the Israel Museum. But if you want to see how we are treating these items, how we explore them, how we protect them, come to us.’

The Schottenstein Campus will also house a new reading room, open to local and international researchers. The IAA will move the entire contents of their current library, including rare 16th- and 17th-century manuscripts, from the Rockefeller when the new campus is complete.

But some archaeologists and academics, including the Alliance to Restore Cultural Heritage in Jerusalem, view this move from East to West as problematic. In May 2016, Israeli NGO Emek Shaveh petitioned the High Court of Justice to prevent the move of the library, as well as the move of any additional artefacts. For Emek Shaveh, a local organisation that works to prevent the politicisation of archaeology, the petition aimed to preserve the Rockefeller’s shared legacy by leaving the museum completely intact. ‘Although the museum is in East Jerusalem, the artefacts and the collections are relevant to all of Israel and Palestine,’ Yonathan Mizrachi, the director of Emek Shaveh said, explaining that over the past decade, the IAA has removed certain artefacts from Rockefeller storage to other locations. ‘So that was the basis of the court case. The library that was established by the British during the British Mandate also has an academic value, and should remain exactly where it is.’

Glass and vessels on display in the Jay and Jeanie Schottenstein National Campus for the Archaeology of Israel, in a gallery focusing on the glass industry in Israel and the ancient world

Glass and vessels on display in the Jay and Jeanie Schottenstein National Campus for the Archaeology of Israel, in a gallery focusing on the glass industry in Israel and the ancient world. Photo: Ardon Bar-Hama

The IAA immediately refuted claims that they intend to remove any artefacts from the Rockefeller, citing the difference between the movement of the library and the movement of antiquities. Two months later, the court turned down Emek Shaveh’s appeal. ‘The Supreme Court preferred to ignore the international law, which prohibits the transfer of cultural assets from an occupied territory to the domain of the occupying power,’ Emek Shaveh said in a statement after the decision. ‘It also ignored the fact that Israel, too, has attributed a special status to the museum over the decades.’

‘The artefacts in the Rockefeller Museum will stay in the Rockefeller Museum,’ Dahari tells me. ‘The library is our library, it belongs to us. More than 80 per cent of the books were bought by the IAA. We have decided, not because of international law, because we do believe that it would not be fair to remove [other] items from the Rockefeller, so we won’t do it.’

But things might get a bit more complicated when the IAA’s staff moves into the new, conservationally sound building, where archaeologists will be afforded space and resources they could only dream about at the Rockefeller. On the top level of the new campus, the entry platform has a clear view of the Hebrew University campus. The architect didn’t want to disrupt the sightline with trees or a garden, and so the IAA decided to exhibit a selection of mosaic floors there. Off to the right, a mosaic, excavated from Beit Shean in the 1930s, shows the remnants of 12 goddesses, one for each month in the zodiac. ‘It was in a very bad state of conservation,’ Dahari tells me at the beginning of our tour. Six months ago, it was moved from outside the Rockefeller to the new campus, where the IAA can properly conserve it, in ‘better conditions’. Whether it will return to East Jerusalem after the conservation is complete, however, remains to be seen.

From the July/August 2017 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.

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