Behind Palestinian Museum Delays: Bureaucratic Quarrels and Discordant Visions

Elie Chalala

With an initial investment of $24 million funding the Palestinian Museum, many attending the opening on May 18th felt surprised by the institution’s lack of art exhibits. The Museum directors had originally scheduled the opening on May 15th to honor Nakba Day, a memorial to the Palestinian “nakba” or catastrophe, and had advertised the opening exhibit, the “Never Part” for almost a year. Thus, the lack of Palestinian embroidery, traditional folk crafts, vintage photographs and collected memorabilia sparked confusion among many of those who attended the event.

With the inauguration of the Palestinian Museum missing its exhibitions, the world media focused on the resulting controversy with headlines such as these: “Palestinian museum opening without exhibits, but creators say that’s no big deal” (Washington Post); “New Palestinian museum missing one thing: all the exhibits” (USA Today); “Palestinian Museum Prepares to Open, Minus Exhibitions” (The New York Times); “New Palestinian museum opens without exhibits” (BBC). Two issues explain the lack of exhibitions and which seem to have fanned the flames of the controversy. The first centered on the political and bureaucratic struggles of groups supposedly dedicated to building a Palestinian state with modern private and public institutions, rising above parochial interests. The second issue which separates the management from the former director concerns two different visions of the museum, one more traditional and the other futuristic, geared toward future generations of Palestinians. Mr. Jack Persekian (the Museum’s previous director and head curator), the original coordinator of the “Never Part” project, planned the exhibit to display personal belongings collected by Palestinian refugees. Mr. Omar al-Qattan (chairman of the museum) represents a more traditional approach, desiring exhibitions to focus on the cultural meaning of martyrdom and the debate over which people inhabited the area first.

Playing politics versus arts and culture does not benefit either group. Museums must have room for both, since the Palestinian people – like every other people – cannot be compartmentalized solely into either the political or the cultural. The totality of the Palestinian experience consists of a plurality of realms which include politics, history, culture, and arts, among many other areas. The immediate question then is how to reconcile or balance between the disparate elements of the Palestinian experience in the new Museum. Museum directors should have supported Persekian in his desire to develop and curate themes and cultural tools successfully adopted by other peoples who fought for their independence from colonial powers. Apparently, they did not. Leaving aside personal bickering as an underlying rationale for the rejection of Persekian and his approach, the possibilities narrow down to the type of traditional thinking that downplays the importance of culture and the arts in changing attitudes and policies.

(The above text is from a longer article in Al Jadid’s Editor Notebook section by Elie Chalala, which is scheduled for Al Jadid Vol. 20, No. 71).

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