Museum Boom In The Jewish State
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Museum Boom In The Jewish State

The new Steinhardt Museum of Natural History in Tel Aviv. Steinhardt credit: Amit Geron Packer credit: Sivan Askayo
The new Steinhardt Museum of Natural History in Tel Aviv. Steinhardt credit: Amit Geron Packer credit: Sivan Askayo

There are always myriad reasons to visit Israel. But with 2018 yielding a crop of museums, galleries and landmark exhibitions from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, there are now more reasons than ever.

Perhaps the most compelling is the Steinhardt Museum of Natural History, a $40 million project adjacent to Tel Aviv University’s botanical and zoological gardens. Yes, it’s that Steinhardt: The New York investor and Birthright Israel philanthropist, Michael Steinhardt, lent his financial support to the decades-long effort to construct the Middle East’s first natural history research center.

Steinhardt’s interest in nature is well-documented; he reportedly keeps a menagerie of exotic animals at his estate in Westchester County. But it’s hard to top the 5.5 million specimens at Tel Aviv’s newest museum, which opened in September in a striking, ark-like structure designed by Kimmel Eshkolot Architects.

The entrance hall is enough to give Tippi Hedren conniptions — an overhead swarm of stuffed hawks, pelicans and vultures that depict Israeli bird migrations. Inside the galleries are hordes of beetles (one of every four organisms on Earth is a beetle!), stuffed artifacts like the last Asiatic cheetah from 1911, and exhibitions on such fascinating oddities as creatures who live without daylight.

The newly opened Nirit Levav Packer sculpture gallery in Jaffa.

More provocatively, the exhibitions prompt visitors to consider how interconnected Earth’s organisms are. One gallery illustrates a diverse ecosystem that depends on a single acacia tree. Another takes a candid look at climate change, habitat destruction and the symbiotic way that nature and humanity have shaped each other — including evolution, a topic some religious visitors have found objectionable.

Late summer saw the Nirit Levav Packer Gallery open in nearby Jaffa, as both a new destination for sculpture and one of the city’s most distinctive spaces. The 1860 building is an Ottoman-era landmark; originally a horse stable, it was part of the long-defunct Khan Hotel and served variously as a transit hub for Jewish immigrants and a meeting place for Jaffa’s Jewish community.

Now gorgeously restored, the gallery’s arched stone vaults are a memorable setting for sculpture by Levav Packer, who crafts her pieces from recycled materials like bicycle chains, light bulbs and mattress frames.

Connoisseurs of the Israeli arts scene know to explore the grungy-cool neighborhoods of south Tel Aviv, where there’s a trend toward fluid, communal art spaces like the Red House.

Like many newer venues, the Red House — in Shapira, a low-key district just south of stylish Florentin — aims to be a creative community center rather than a gallery only. Live performances, artist receptions and yoga meetups draw a diverse crowd; local partnerships bring artists to the Red House for residencies. The space itself, with painted tile floors and peeling Ottoman-era arches, is a distinctive backdrop for art by Israel’s young, multi-ethnic influencers.

In Jerusalem, one of the newest museums is arguably one of its oldest landmarks. After years of planning and excavation, the archaeological wing of the Terra Sancta Museum opened last summer on the Via Dolorosa in the Old City.

The museum, which will expand over several sites in the coming years, has a Christian identity but an interreligious mission — to foster dialogue amid historical evidence of how three monotheistic faiths overlap in Jerusalem. The careful work of Franciscan scholars bears fruit in an exhibition that includes a reconstruction of Jesus’ original living quarters, ruins from medieval Jerusalem, and artifacts from the Crusader era.

Also in Jerusalem, several shows at the Israel Museum this winter offer novel perspectives on radically diverse elements that have shaped Israel and Judaism. Through April 2019, “Fashion Statements: Decoding Israeli Dress” surveys the sartorial semiotics of a century in the Holy Land, from the 19th-century garments of early Zionists to the eye-poppingly scanty bridal looks that have put Tel Aviv designers on the Hollywood red carpet.

“Maimonides: A Legacy in Script” opens at the museum in December, showcasing rare manuscripts from the great 12th-century rabbi, physician and philosopher. Many of these documents — on loan from institutions including the British Library and the Vatican — are on view for the first time in Israel, offering insight into the scholar’s far-reaching intellectual legacy.

Fast forward 900 years, and you have the Russian avant-garde — a 20th-century movement with a significant Jewish influence that is having its first comprehensive retrospective in Israel this year, beginning Dec. 27. “Victory Over the Sun: Russian Avant-Garde and Beyond,” on view through April at the Israel Museum, explores the red-hot social and political dynamics behind canvases that can feel like cold abstraction.

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