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Palestinians Plan Most Ambitious Museum in Ramallah

Written by Diana Atallah        April 10, 2013

Called a “Safe Place for Unsafe Ideas

Ramallah -- From a building overlooking a small garden in this West Bank city, employees are working on the Palestinian Museum -- the first large-scale contemporary Palestinian museum. The cornerstone is finally being laid, some 15-years after the project was first proposed.

The original idea came from the 50th anniversary of what Palestinians call “Nakba” -- the Disaster -- the phrase that refers to the birth of the modern state of Israel in 1948, and the displacement of some 700,000 Palestinians.

“Initially, everyone wanted to make this museum in Jerusalem but we knew that the Israelis would make this impossible,” Omar Kattan, head of Palestinian Museum's work team, told The Media Line. “After things became possible again in terms of the political situation, we re-opened this file and commissioned the study and developed a framework to do it.”
“We came up with a unique concept that is basically a museum without a collection, and a museum that is based on a network rather than a building,” Kattan said.

“The idea [evolved] from the “Memory Museum of the Nakba” to a museum that will use the tools of history to come out with a modern dialogue,” Jack Persekian, the director and curator of the Palestinian Museum told The Media Line. “We’re moving forward from representing an incident that happened in a certain time to representing the Palestinians wherever they are.”

“We are very keen on being a source of inspiration, provocation sometimes and questioning subjects and themes we believe are very important for our society and history,” Kattan added.

Director Persekian promised that “We will not censor any item or art or history because we disagree with it or it says something against us,” he told The Media Line. He asserts that “the role of art is to create a dialogue around national concerns.

The museum’s creators hope the institution will also be a way of teaching young Palestinians about their heritage. Some of the Palestinians living in the diaspora are third-generation and many have little connection to “Palestine” -- a fact the museum hopes to change.

The exhibits will include some of the Palestinian nationalistic symbols such as keys that symbolize homes that Israel destroyed or from which Arab families fled. Keys and title deeds are meant to refer to the displacement of people and the right of return claimed by Palestinians. Visual and written material, including photos and other forms of art, will offer a variety of Palestinian stories the curators say will be relevant to Palestinians all over the world.

Unlike the Rockefeller Museum in east Jerusalem (formerly known as the Palestine Archaeological Museum) that is a major repository of archaeological crafts, the Palestine Museum is “not specialized in archaeology,” According to Persekian. “We are focusing on the contemporary side that we think is needed.”

Director Persekian explained that the “contemporary side” he speaks of will be strong on politics, asserting that Palestinian daily life that includes barriers, checkpoints and permits created a need for a global aspect. “The Israeli control over the Palestinians’ lands made Palestinians more disconnected from each other. The connection is difficult between Palestinians in Israel; Palestinians in Jerusalem; refugees; Palestinians in the West Bank; and Palestinians in the diaspora. ”

“Our situations made us try to always challenge the barriers, and overcome the physical obstacles. A part of the museum will be transitional. We will also exhibit with partners from across the region and the world,” Persekian told The Media Line. We want to reach out to global audiences.”

The museum will start collecting items that will be featured in its permanent collection although funds are not yet available. The museum will host temporary exhibits, some of which are already planned. One of them will show cherished items that were saved for long periods of time by their owners. The producers are reaching out to Palestinians and inviting them to share their personal experiences. “A Palestinian man who left to the United States left the coffee residue in his coffee cups. Some people used to know their forecast by reading the marks left by coffee grinds in their coffee cups. This man left the residue untouched for more than 20 years representing the luck of his family,” said Persekian.

He also said, “It wasn’t a coincidence that the museum will be built in the town of Birzeit, near Ramallah, as the town hosts one of the most prominent Palestinian universities. Education and learning will be an important part of designing the projects at the museum,” Persekian added.

The producers hope that the Palestinian Museum will be a platform that will encourage free conversation about the history and legacy of the Palestinian people. “There is a difficulty of connection between Palestinians so we also hope it will be a step toward an open dialogue between all Palestinians, wherever they are,” according to the planners.
“In this time of less hope for Palestinians, building a museum shows that Palestinians are looking at the past in order to celebrate the future,” Khaled Horani, Arts Director of the International Academy of Art Palestine.
The Palestinian Museum chose a conversation bar as its logo, “because the story of the human race is the story of conversation,” a video on the museum website says, adding that the museum will be virtual, too. 

In the streets of Ramallah, 23-year-old accountant Dina Basem told The Media Line that she appreciates the idea. “Now we have more interesting places to bring our foreign visitors,” Basem said.