James Snyder's Civilization on the Hill

Two years following the completion of a major expansion and renewal of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, director James Snyder (LF 1997) reflects on what the changes have meant for the museum, its visitors, and the striving for a universalist, intercultural perspective. Here's what he has to say about it:

"Our main agenda for expansion and renewal was to complete as much as possible the original vision for the museum in 1965, a synthesis of modernism on an ancient hilltop setting in Jerusalem. The museum is the backdrop for the display of the continuum of cultural history from 1.5 million years ago to today.  We wanted to achieve an integration of new architecture and original architecture that would both retain the spirit of the original and signal renewal through a resonant architectural signature.

"Trying to do something for which there was no real model, and certainly not locally or regionally, presented huge challenges. In many respects we were a counter-trend to the approach of many of our sister institutions. We wanted to expand our collection displays, but without expanding the museum’s physical scale and to be transformational while also keeping the spirit of the museum’s initial intent.

"We were very fortunate in having a great client-architect relationship with James Carpenter Design Associates of New York (James Carpenter is a 1990 LF), working with Efrat-Kowalsky Architects of Tel Aviv. With them we had architects who understood completely our mandate and who were able instinctually to defer to the ethos of original design intent while also making a new signature that marks the museum’s reinvention.  We matched well, and we confirmed that match through what was essentially a one-year collaboration “on spec” before we proceeded together officially.

"Now, two years out, we can see the impact.  First, we have been blessed with a completed project that works entirely as we had hoped – with no major design errors!  Secondly, we’ve demonstrated the benefit of growing our display space (times 2), while actually reducing the number of objects on display (by 30%), so that visitors experience the benefit of celebrating the beauty and meaning of each object.  This approach allows the notion of a universal narrative to be meaningful regardless of a visitor’s breadth or depth of knowledge.  The success of the project has also encouraged people across Israel to embrace the museum as their own with a great deal of pride, and this is very wonderful.  And its success has also encouraged the kind of thoughtfulness worldwide that Ed Rothstein’s recent New York Times article reflects, which could not be more gratifying for all of us in the museum.

"Our next challenge will be using the renewed museum for the ongoing presentation of collections and exhibitions that exploit it to the fullest, and to sustain in our ongoing programming the level of design sensibility that we achieved during the project.  720 Degrees, by Ron AradToday it’s about using not just the galleries to their fullest, but also the entire campus, in ways that promote engagement and interaction throughout the site as a cultural “place.”  A good example is Ron Arad’s 720 Degrees  project , which will be presented outdoors in our sculpture garden next week--it was produced last year in London’s indoor roundhouse setting.  It’s amazing to think of something so contemporary, set against our modernist backdrop, laid atop our ancient landscape.  Whew!"

Fellowship Year: 1997, 1990
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