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“Please, don’t mind the mess,” Omar al-Qattan says as he’s giving a tour of the construction site to a Fanack reporter. Much has still to be done; there is still no art collection, but the view of and from the Palestinian Museum in Bir Zeit, a village in the northern half of the Israeli-occupied West Bank, is magnificent. The triangular building itself, which will open to the public on 18 May 2016, fits in remarkably well with its surroundings on a hilltop. On a good day, one can see the Mediterranean Sea, near Tel Aviv. The museum garden reflects the old Palestinian habit of cultivating plants and trees on terraces. More than one hundred olive trees have already been planted. Even without a collection, the building is worth a visit.
The first exposition will be held in October 2016, al-Qattan explains. The 51-year-old Palestinian, who lives in Britain and grew up in Lebanon, is the chairman and acting director of the Palestinian Museum. He spends the rest of his time making and producing films, chairing cultural organizations, and working for the Kuwait-based engineering company his family owns.
While showing the building, al-Qattan speaks about the plan to cooperate with other museums in Palestine and worldwide. The idea would be to start with temporary expositions of borrowed pieces and for the museum to gradually gather its own collection of artifacts, photos, sculptures, paintings, and videos. Anything that has to do with the history of Palestine is welcome, possibly including an exhibition of family pictures and wedding videos.
The museum has cost $28 million and has been completely privately funded, mostly by wealthy Palestinians but also by donors from other Arabic countries. Due to the scattered situation of the Palestinian people—not just the geographical divide between the West Bank and Gaza but also the refugees in neighbouring countries and a worldwide diaspora—the museum will not consist solely of a physical building in Bir Zeit. According to al-Qattan, the idea for the museum is to be “a hub with satellites”—rather a network than a building—in order to serve all Palestinian communities. The museum’s first external exhibition of political embroidery, will open on 25 May 2016 in Beirut. Al-Qattan also hopes to establish a functioning satellite museum in the Gaza Strip.
The original plan for the Palestinian Museum goes back to 1997, but the Second Intifada, which lasted from 2000 until 2005, was a major setback. In 2008, the plan was revived, resulting in the almost-finished building in Bir Zeit. The concept of the museum, al-Qattan says, underwent much discussion: “The older generation wanted it to be a museum about the Nakba,” the exodus of more than 700,000 Palestinians who fled or were expelled from their homes in what is now Israel during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. “But the younger generation—back then, I was still young—wanted the concept to be broader. Not just to look back and commemorate the past, but also to appreciate Palestinian life and culture.” The younger generation has won the dispute, but, of course, al-Qattan says, it is still more than possible that the museum will host an exhibition on the Nakba.
Such an exhibition would take place in the main hall or “white cube,” which covers 500 square metres and can be divided into smaller rooms with movable walls. In the museum, which, it is hoped, will eventually employ some 42 people, there is also a climate-controlled storage room and an archive. It is the most state-of-the-art facility for art storage in Palestine. Al-Qattan is hoping to cooperate with Bir Zeit University, which is located next door. The students of Bir Zeit have to walk only a few hundred metres to visit the museum. They can use the building’s space for education or presentations, while the museum can benefit from the university’s research facilities.
Al-Qattan has ambitious plans. The building is designed so that it can be enlarged up to two-and-a-half times its present size. Many hurdles, however, remain. For example, there is already a shortage of donations. The current disastrous state of much of the Middle East is making funding even more difficult. And it will be hard, according to al-Qattan, to obtain artifacts from other Arab countries. These objects, after all, have to travel to Bir Zeit through Ben Gurion airport in Israel, so acquisitions depend on Israeli goodwill.
Nonetheless, al-Qattan believes the museum will bring Palestinians closer together, scattered as they are today, geographically as well as politically. Because there is no connection with any of the Palestinian political factions, which are as always in bitter conflict with each other, the museum’s decisions are autonomous. “For me personally, as a Palestinian, I think the museum is a recognition and celebration of our culture. Our heritage is so rich.” Al-Qattan hopes that Israelis, too, will visit the museum, although by Israeli law they’re prohibited from entering Area A, where the museum is located. “But they will definitely be interested.”
The triangular building itself, which opened to the public on 18 May 2016, fits in remarkably well with its surroundings on a hilltop.
On 18 May 2016 a grand opening of the building by Palestinian officials took place, accompanied by a sunset performance, and, on the same day, the online platform of the Palestinian Museum was launched. In the first months, the museum was busy with training and educating staff members, until the first exhibition was ready to be displayed in October 2016. In the meantime, however, al-Qattan hopes to attract visitors who want to enjoy the design of the building itself. It isn’t self-evident that a project like this emerges in a time of ongoing and deepening Israeli occupation, together with the growing frustration of Palestinian youth, says Al-Qattan. “Especially for the young generation, it is important to have something to be proud of.”