Palestinian Museum Opens Despite Management Disputes
By Sylvia Tsai
The long-awaited Palestinian Museum, located in the university town of Birzeit just north of Ramallah, opened on May 18 to coincide with the 68th anniversary of Nakba (May 15), the massive exodus of roughly 700,000 Palestinians during the 1948 Palestine War. Unlike most, if not all, museum launches, however, the Palestinian Museum debuted without any exhibitions—the result of disagreements between former director Jack Persekian and members of the museum’s board, which led to the resignation of Persekian in December 2015.
The idea for the museum was first conceived in 1997 by the Ramallah-based nonprofit Taawon-Welfare Association, which supports Palestinians locally and abroad, as well as conserves the region's cultural heritage. The May 18 opening celebrated the completion of the institution’s first phase: a 3,500-square-meter building, designed by Dublin-based architectural firm Heneghan Peng for a grand total of USD 24 million, which includes exhibition spaces, an open-air amphitheater, classrooms and a library. The opening of this milestone also marks Palestine’s first "green" building to be constructed using environmentally responsible and resource-efficient design, materials and labor. During the second phase of the project—slated for 2026—the museum will expand by another 9,000 square meters.
Unique to the future programming of this national museum will be its satellite locations and institutional partnerships with organizations all around the world—in countries including Lebanon, Jordan and Chile—which represents the complex geographies of the Palestinian diasporic community. The museum’s first satellite exhibition “At the Seams: A Political History of Palestinian Embroidery” opens on May 25 at Dar el-Nimer, Beirut.
Though Persekian, who was appointed director of the Palestinian Museum in 2012, never officially disclosed the source of the contention, there have been reports stating a difference of opinion between their visions for the institution. Whereas some members of the museum’s leadership were more conservative—wanting it to be a memorial for those affected by the Palestinian Exodus—others, such as Persekian, pushed for a direction that would also speak about contemporary Palestine. On the online platform openDemocracy, Persekian stated: “Whenever one is talking about Palestine, there are certain set modes of representation that have been adopted by the political establishment and disseminated as the official narratives. But the discussions we would like to have in the museum are about challenging a set of givens that we have lived with for many years now. It is about confronting taboos and sanctioned narratives, not merely acting as a national museum to vindicate what the authorities want.”
After Persekian’s departure, Palestinian Museum chairman Omar al-Qattan stepped in as the interim director. It was only on May 5, two weeks before the opening of the museum, that archaeologist and Islamic art specialist Mahmoud Hawari filled the vacancy. It is still unknown whether Persekian’s previously scheduled inaugural exhibition “Never Part,” will be presented—eventually or at all. The show would have included interviews of Palestinians local and abroad, in which they described one object they felt a connection to that is specifically related to Palestine. Perhaps Hawari has other ideas in store for the museum’s very first show, which is scheduled to take place in October.
Sylvia Tsai is associate editor at ArtAsiaPacific.