On 11 April 2013, the Palestinian Museum celebrated its groundbreaking ceremony in Birzeit, in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The museum, the largest in Palestine, will be dedicated to celebrating the history, culture and society of modern and contemporary Palestine. A flagship project of the Welfare Association, a leading not-for-profit that provides development and humanitarian assistance in Palestine since 1983, the Museum is set to open in 2014.
In this interview, Omar Al-Qattan, the Chairman of the Museum Task Force, describes how the Palestinian Museum aims to be a place where anyone can take part in a shared conversation about the present, past, and future of the Palestinian people and how the Museum can serve as an agent of empowerment for them.
OIL Editors (OE): Can you tell us something about how this museum came to be? Where and how did the idea start?
Omar Al-Qattan (OQ): In 1997, the Welfare Association (WA) Board wanted to build a commemorative museum to mark fifty years since the Nakba. But as soon as we began to think about the museum - what it should be about, what it should contain, where it should be established (everyone`s preference was of course Jerusalem, but that was politically impossible), what periods it should cover, we realized that a lot of thinking and research needed to be done in order for us to reach a proposal which would make all of our board members happy. As Palestinian society is extremely diverse, so too is the membership of the WA, culturally and generationally speaking, so we were having a hard time reaching a consensus. Then the Second Uprising caught up with us, as with everyone else, and the project was put on hold. However, about six years ago, with the election of a new WA Chair, Dr. Nabil Qaddumi, new energy was injected into the project. The WA asked Professor Beshara Doumani, an eminent Palestinian historian, to revisit the project’s documents and with the help of two international consulting firms that specialize in museum development, we created the strategic plan, which is the basis of our current project.
As it stands now, the Palestinian Museum is dedicated to preserving the tangible and intangible culture of modern Palestine and its people. The Museum will strive to be a place that brings together an innovative mix of exhibitions, research, and education programs, and a space for inspiration, reflection, and dialogue. We’ve decided to focus on the modern period, going as far back the mid-eighteenth century in terms of the exhibitions we would like to present. However, we are not excluding earlier historical periods entirely by any means. In terms of our collections, we are currently planning to acquire objects from the more recent past (nineteenth century to the present). Construction has begun on the building, which rests on a forty-dunum plot of land adjacent to Birzeit University.
This first phase of construction will result in a 3,000 m2 building with a climate-controlled gallery space, an amphitheatre, a cafeteria with outdoor seating, classrooms, storage space,a gift shop, and staff offices. This phase should be completed late 2014. Phase Two, which will be completed within another ten years, will see the expansion of the Museum to 9,000 m2 and will include more gallery space for temporary and permanent exhibitions, an auditorium, additional classrooms, and a library.
Our virtual presence will be as important as our physical hub in Birzeit. It’s through our online portal that we plan to build a virtual archive of information, documents, images that will be accessible to all; it will also serve as a virtual museum space that will either mirror, supplement, or compliment our real-world exhibition and programming. Building an effective and efficient repository of knowledge that is easily sharable with individuals and with other cultural or research institutions is one of our main goals.
OE: What kind of programming and exhibitions will the Palestinian Museum offer its audiences?
OQ: The Palestinian Museum hopes to offer its audiences, both at our physical and virtual sites, the kind of programming and exhibitions that are innovative, thought-provoking, and engaging. Our exhibitions will address important themes that relate to the Palestinian experience, primarily but not exclusively from modern and contemporary times. These exhibitions will be thematic and concept-driven, rather than revolve around particular objects in our collection. We also plan to have the kind of education and public programming that we hope will allow the Museum to be a space that encourages open dialogue and a free exchange of ideas among our visitors.
OE: What are some of the challenges you and your team expect to face in the coming years, operating a museum while under occupation?
OQ: There are the obvious problems of access for Palestinians who are not resident in the West Bank, visa issues for international consultants, the terrible political and economic consequences of the occupation, and there is also the not-so-apparent vilification of which the Museum is the subject on a number of social media platforms. It seems that we are stepping into an ideological minefield, but is that not the role of a vital and dynamic cultural institution? That is, to offer the space and freedom for people to explore themes and ideas freely, even if we think that they will be provocative or controversial, as long as they are creating debate and reflection. It seems that that in itself is already unsettling many people!
What is most interesting about some Israeli or Zionist reactions is how extraordinarily defensive they are about "their" history. They dismiss Palestinians and their history as myths or false inventions that somehow challenge their own legitimacy or are seen to be competing with them. But we do not feel the need to be defensive. Our aim is to explore the manifold presences that have always existed and continue to do so on this poor battered land of ours. And it seems that any narrative that does not fit within the narrow parameters of Zionist ideology is seen as threatening. It is extraordinary to contemplate this – that a country with a massive army and nuclear capability should feel threatened by historical enquiry!
OE: There are approximately thirty museums in the occupied Palestinian territory, varying in size and purpose. Given poor attendance rates, do the Palestinians really need yet another museum, and one on such a large scale?
OQ: We hope to offer experiences that are not available elsewhere – both through our exhibitions but also through our education and outreach programs. However, as we also think of ourselves as belonging to a network of museums and cultural spaces that we will develop over time, we hope to share resources, both physically and through our online platform, including exhibitions, public relations, advertising, professional expertise, actual materials, and research. We are pretty confident that this dynamic will invigorate a number of existing institutions and achieve one of our goals – namely to reach all Palestinians and those interested in Palestine and not only those living in the West Bank.
OE: You and others involved in the Palestinian Museum have claimed most adamantly that it is not a national museum and yet you speak of mobilizing the Palestinian people, and preserving and presenting their narratives in ways that could sound as if it were a national project. How are the two distinct, and why is this distinction important?
OQ: A national museum is usually a state museum built around a public collection. We are a private, independent endeavor with no current collection. We hope to acquire a collections over the years, a lot of which will be made available online. I think the ability and will to mobilize people around a specific project should not be a state monopoly. It should remain a democratic and transparent project.
OE: The Palestinian Museum is very outward looking, in the sense that it wants to reach out to Palestinians living in Palestine and those living in the diaspora, as well as anyone anywhere who is interested in learning more about Palestinian history, culture and society. Can you comment on this?
OQ: We believe very strongly that culture should be free of ideological strictures, including arbitrary borders and limits imposed by the powerful on unwilling citizens. So even if there were no diaspora or occupation, we would adhere to this principle of openness to the world. Any museum worth its salt must do so. In the case of the Palestinian experience, one of our great strengths – which we are only beginning to fully understand and utilize now – is that we are everywhere, and that what binds us is not only the struggle for freedom, independence and emancipation, but very rich and varied human experiences which are being expressed through a wide range of increasingly sophisticated and innovative artistic and intellectual forms. We must also realize that we share this ubiquity with many other peoples, and that the Palestinian struggle for freedom and justice is a universal one, with which millions of people identify, so it is critical to offer effective means of communicating with our friends – and foes – around the world.
OE: There is the notion, which you espouse for the Palestinian Museum, that a museum should be “a safe place for unsafe ideas.” This can be interpreted in different ways depending on the museum in question. What does it mean for the Palestinian Museum to be such a place?
OQ: My understanding of this phrase is that we feel it is our duty to offer artists, thinkers, students, curators, ordinary citizens and of course our visitors the freedom to reflect on Palestinian culture and history without being afraid – of censorship, authority, received ideas and values, nor of course the Occupying Power. I am pretty sure I can guarantee the first three, the last I am not so certain.
For example, we could create an exhibition about women in the Palestinian revolution, which would inevitably lead us to reflect on their heroism but also on the personal tragedies that often resulted from Palestinian society’s own oppressiveness. This has the potential to catalyze a discussion on the opportunities and limitations for reconfiguring gender roles in Palestinian society. As the Chair of the Museum’s Task Force, I can guarantee maintaining the Museum as a space for these discussions.
On the other hand, the Occupation forces could decide that we have simply become too efficient an institution in mobilizing Palestinians or supporters of Palestinians around a specific issue – for example around the theft of water resources- and start harassing us or trying to close us down. Our ability to resist that sort of harassment is clearly very limited.
OE: There seems to be something of “museum fever” in the Arab World these days. The Gulf States are a prime example, where a number of homegrown museums have been established in the last ten years or so, and where world-renowned American and European museums are opening branches, like the Louvre and Guggenheim in Abu Dhabi. Why do you think this is, and how does the Palestinian Museum relate to this regional trend (or not?)
OQ: In the case of the Gulf countries, the states there have recognized the public relations and tourism value of having important collections housed in grand buildings. Some have also begun to recognize the importance of local involvement in a museum`s work and activities and have invested in capacity building and audience development., which is great. But the Palestinian Museum is very different from these worthy projects. Ours is a tiny enterprise in comparison to the planned museums you refer to and it is founded upon completely different premises. Namely that we do not represent any state or government, that we are open and democratic, that we value our independence above all else and that we are also keen on innovation.
The idea of the museum acting as hub in a network, as a factory of ideas rather than a repository of objects already distinguishes this project from many international museums I know of, not only the ones in the Gulf. I hope that our programs will also prove to be innovative. I have always felt that Palestine, like Lebanon and Tunisia perhaps, must play a pioneering cultural and artistic role in spite of its limited means and terrible political situation. We can see that individuals, filmmakers, writers, and artists have often done so on a regional level. So as a museum we must also lead the way!
[For more information about the Palestinian Museum, visit www.palmuseum.org and www.facebook.com/ThePalestinianMuseum]