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Safeguarding Palestinian History 

posted on: Jun 9, 2016

By Maher Abukhater
Newsweek Middle East

On top of a hill not far from the West Bank City of Ramallah, where on a clear sunny day one can see the Mediterranean, sits a curiously shaped building.

The $28 million stone and glass terrace-shaped structure is the new Palestinian Museum, which was designed by the Dublin-based Heneghan Peng.

The design, according to architects, attempts to blend the building into its surrounding terraced fields, typical of the West Bank landscape. A selection of 70 kinds of plants that grow in Palestine were neatly planted across the museum’s gardens.

Even though the West Bank is host to dozens of museums, this new ‘Palestinian Museum’ is the first on a national scale.

With 95 percent Palestinian financing, the Palestinian museum is not intended to be “like any other,” says Omar Qattan, one of the founders and the chief executive officer of the museum.

The museum’s future exhibitions would be based on specific themes, similar to the National Museum of African American History and Culture at the Smithsonian, in Washington, D.C.

“Like other people under occupation or who’ve been enslaved or have lost their land, we do not have control over our lives—and therefore we cannot just do something traditional,” Qattan tells Newsweek Middle East.

“We should rebuild what was devastated in the many wars that we had. We should regain control of our destiny, our culture and our artifacts. This will take time and effort. It is a long process that cannot happen overnight,” he adds.

The Palestinian Museum will also serve as a research center producing ideas and material, and will work towards discovering art work, artifacts and personal items both from Palestine and worldwide that can contribute to its programs.

In doing so, the museum will be able to cross borders and reach communities around the globe, mainly Palestinians who are not able to return home because of the occupation. Through this project, the diaspora will be granted digital access to the museum’s showrooms to learn more about their homeland, culture and traditions.

It is in that sense that the museum differs from those currently existing ones in the West Bank, according to its custodians.

“What distinguishes this museum is that it primarily aims at establishing an interaction between Palestinians at home and in the diaspora,” says Mahmoud Hawari, the museum’s new director.
“We want it to be an incubator for culture, art and creative Palestinians and an establishment for a broad Palestinian dialogue and discourse about history, culture and heritage,” he adds.

Erected on a 3500 square meter plot of land donated by the adjacent Birzeit University, the museum also extends the university’s students and researchers the chance to use its facilities to support their work.
And it is not only Palestinians who are proud of this project.

Isaac Sahhar, the assistant vice president of Bethlehem University is equally happy with the new construction.

“It is a historic day for me. I am proud to see a museum of this size and goals being built here. This proves that we are capable of producing something of this caliber in spite of the suffocating occupation,” he tells Newsweek Middle East.

The inauguration of the Palestinian Museum in May was merely a christening of the building, as no artifacts were ready for exhibition, due to a dispute with the former museum director.

However, the real launch and opening of its doors to the public is not expected before this fall or early 2017. And the launch is expected to display works such as the “Palestinian Audio Visual Archive” and “Palestinian Journeys Timeline From 1850 To Present.”

The museum, a flagship project for a Palestinian nonprofit organization, Taawan Welfare Association, was originally intended to be “dedicated to the memory of the Nakba” in 1997, according to the museum website.

The Nakba, or catastrophe in Arabic, refers to the 1948 Arab-Israeli war that started on May 15 and led to the creation of Israel and the displacement and expulsion of over 700,000 Palestinians from their homes and land.

The idea was to document the catastrophe that shaped the history of modern Palestine as a result of the expulsion of over 60 percent of the country’s Arab inhabitants. However, the idea evolved over time and the museum would no longer focus only on the Nakba, but has transformed into an institution that can celebrate Palestine’s culture more broadly.

But real work on the museum did not start until 2009, with a study prepared by Beshara Doumani, a Haifa-born Palestinian-American professor of history at Brown University in the United States and director of its Middle East Studies Program.

Doumani took Taawan’s idea and developed it into a feasibility study that set the foundation for the museum. The actual groundbreaking ceremony did not occur until April 2013.

Taawan had planned to have an exhibition on display when it scheduled the official opening on Nakba Day 2016. However, a dispute arose between the management of the museum and its former director as to what exhibits would be on display, so the event became an inauguration of the museum building—and not its official launch.

Nevertheless, the museum held its first exhibition outside Palestine on May 25 under the title of ‘At the Seams: A Political History of Palestinian Embroidery’ in Beirut, Lebanon. It displayed a large collection of traditional garments with embroidery that exhibit Palestinian society and culture.

The current building is only the first phase in the larger Palestinian Museum project. The next phase, which may see an expansion of the present structure, may take at least a decade and is expected to include a large auditorium and a national library.

Until that happens, Palestinians seem to be satisfied with what is now available for them on the ground, with hopes of seeing it grow into a museum of an international caliber.