Israel Museum gets much-needed makeover

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JERUSALEM — I was the first journalist to interview James Snyder when he arrived in 1997 from a sinecure at New York's Museum of Modern Art to head the Israel Museum, the country's premier cultural institution.

Snyder had neat white hair, a trim build encased in a seersucker suit, and a black tie. This, in a land where dressing up means putting on a T-shirt that has sleeves. As I listened to his East Coast drawl, I took one look at him and figured he wouldn’t last.

Devotees of the Israel Museum can be thankful I was wrong. (Devotees of GlobalPost may be thankful I have 14 more years of experience of the Middle East and have learned not to write people off, as I used to do.) Snyder just completed a $100-million renovation of the museum, transforming a much-loved but confusing jumble into a sleek, user-friendly building.

After three years in which visitors could, more or less, only see the Dead Sea Scrolls and a large model of Jerusalem in the time of Herod’s Temple (and still at the full entrance price), the museum reopened its full collection last week. The flashy redesign has attracted masses of Israelis and foreign tourists without making the place seem overcrowded.

The new museum sticks with the general features of the older building, which was designed in the late 1950s and inaugurated in 1965. A series of modernist cubes, the old building was arranged along the ridge above the 11th-century Monastery of the Cross, and beside the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. The original designer, Alfred Mansfeld, intended the museum to blend with its landscape, like an Arab village.

Unfortunately, Mansfield, a Russian-born, Israeli architect, also had the idea of making visitors walk the entire length of the museum — uphill, a distance equal to four stories, and outside in a city that sits in a desert and is quite hot nine months of the year — before they could enter. The walk was, to say the least, unpopular. Particularly because when you got to the top, you had to go down some stairs to enter the galleries.

You can still make the walk in the desert heat if you want. But after entering through the new admissions hall, which is louvered with terracotta to cut out the sun, visitors may now ascend a gentler slope in air-conditioned comfort. A tunnel, created by James Carpenter Design Associates of New York, takes visitors to the galleries with frosted glass on one side. By a neat geometric trick, it’s designed to make you feel you’re walking downhill whichever end of the tunnel you’re at.

With a series of new buildings added in among Mansfeld’s original pods, the museum’s exhibition space has doubled to 200,000 square feet. But the curators cut the number of items on display to 8,500 from 12,000.

That’s because the three main galleries — biblical archeology, fine arts and Jewish life — were so jammed with treasures in the old museum that it was hard to know what to look at. (It was also near impossible to find your way around, even for people who had worked there for years.)

The collection as a whole is still a hodge-podge, making for strange juxtapositions. I counted 100 steps from the Egyptian mummies to Rembrandt’s “Saint Peter” canvas. I was quite happy to count my steps, because it was better than looking at the twaddle filling the new Israeli Art gallery (there was no gallery devoted to local art before, and now we know why.) But it’s now easier to find your way through the paintings without suddenly emerging into an archeological gallery of Roman artifacts and wondering where you made a wrong turn.

About 10 percent of the new museum is devoted to contemporary art. It’s the kind of stuff that brings out the curmudgeon in everyone except art students and pseudo intellectuals. The instruments of a jazz ensemble suspended by wires. (“Why?” asked my 2-year-old son. Smart lad.) A collection of cubes made to look like a henhouse, each cube with a light bulb inside and all the light bulbs blinking at different times. This was supposed to be a comment on the situation of the Palestinians.

Nevermind. There are more crowd-pleasing art works by Van Gogh, Renoir, Monet and Rodin with which to improve your mind, after you’ve finished laughing at the contemporary art.

It’s clear the museum is much more enjoyable than it used to be. Old friends on the museum’s staff profess themselves to be excited. When pressed, they admit that perhaps the best thing about the new museum is that they now know how to get out of the galleries when it’s time to go home at the end of their day.