Edward Rothstein reviews the recent renovation of the Israel Museum and, as usual, hits the nail on the head. The Museum is spacious, elegant, replete with beautiful and remarkable objects – it even has great restaurants, but the idea of a national museum is to enable everyone from schoolchildren to tourists to walk through the exhibits and get some idea of what forces shaped the creation of this nation and how it sees itself. Telling the story of the nation is job 1 and the new Israel Museum fails.
A visitor can carefully examine the magnificent archaeological galleries, minutely examine the Jewish Arts and Life wing and enjoy some of the world’s great art without being told how the Jewish people came to be. This need not be a simplistic narrative, it is perfectly possible to present confusing evidence fairly and admit that debate and uncertainty exist. It is possible to tell parallel stories. It is possible to tell the stories of the many peoples and empires that have passed through and lived in this land without forgetting that Israel was always connected to the rest of the world. But there is little point in calling this the Israel museum when the archaeological wing tells no story about Israel at all. As Rothstein puts it, “we never really grasp the evolution of the Israelite religion or its transformations after exile”. True, and neither are we given any idea of how an Israelite kingdom rose, fell, and rose again, or of why the people of Israel yearned to return from exile. Explanation without jingoism or triumphalism is possible. In failing to explain where the Jewish nation came form, how it emerged, how it survived and what it represents, the Israel Museum fails dismally.
The Jewish Arts and Life wing is, if possible, less enlightening than the archaeology wing. Replete with diversity and artifacts to the point where it overwhelms the viewer – I challenge anyone to focus on that towering wall of menorahs – the wing gives us detail without insight, like a dazzling pointillist display that fails to resolve into an image no matter how close up or far away you stand from the canvas. The curator seems to be saying: there was art! there was life! there were Jews! without telling us how any of these things relates to the others.
Rothstein is a gentleman, he phrases his critique almost as praise, “There are not many other nations that so readily submerge self-celebration in homage to the universal or are so wary of the particular; it is difficult to imagine the Louvre or the British Museum taking on a comparably self-questioning perspective.”
On the upside, the building is magnificent and the collection is magnificent; perhaps someday it will have a curator who is capable of narrating the complex stories of Jewish life and history.