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How the new Palestinian Museum aims to be transnational

Tania KraemerMay 18, 2016

A new Palestinian Museum opens in the West Bank on May 18 - albeit without an inaugural exhibition. The museum's chairman Omar al-Qattan tells DW how the institution aims to overcome boundaries to reach all Palestinians.

Palestinian Museum in Birzeit, West Bank, Copyright: Heneghan Peng Architects
Image: Heneghan Peng Architects

In Birzeit, a small university city near Ramallah in the central West Bank, the privately financed Palestinian Museum opens on Wednesday (18.05.2016), after nearly 20 years of planning and an investment of $24 million (21 million euros).

However, there will not be that much to see yet: The inaugural exhibition is set to be held in the fall. It was suspended after the museum's director left over a dispute with the board of the museum. A new curator is taking over this week.

The museum aims to create a symbolic connection with all Palestinians who live geographically and politically isolated from each other, in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, but also abroad, in exile. As it is very difficult for many Palestinians from Gaza or abroad to obtain the permission to enter the Israeli-occupied West Bank, there will be partner museums in Lebanon, Jordan, Gaza and in South America, where a large community of Palestinians is based.

The first "satellite" exhibition of the museum is set to open on May 25 in Beirut, Lebanon. It will explore the political history of Palestinian embroidery.

Omar al-Qattan is the museum's chairman. Born from Palestinian parents in Beirut, he studied in the UK. He is a film director, producer and artist.

Palestinian Museum in Birzeit, West Bank, Chairman Omar al-Qattan, Copyright: Heneghan Peng Architects
Chairman Omar al-QattanImage: Heneghan Peng Architects

Deutsche Welle: It took a very long time to establish the museum. Why is the museum finally opening its doors now?

Omar al-Qattan: I am very excited: We started talking about this project 19 years ago. There were interruptions - there was the Second Intifada, and then an interruption of about six or seven years. I am very proud that we finally made it. It is a unique example of a Palestinian collective effort, financed by Palestinians, and done by Palestinians. And it is fantastic, especially at a time where there are so many divisions and cynicism.

What does the museum aim to achieve?

This is a museum dedicated to the history, culture and society of Palestine and the Palestinians. We would like to create a program and educational projects that are relevant to that history and to that culture, more specifically to the Modern Age, from the 18th centuries onwards, but not exclusively.

It is a bit unusual to inaugurate a building of a museum without an exhibition. What will be actually shown at the museum?

Palestinian Museum in Birzeit, West Bank, Copyright: Heneghan Peng Architects
The exhibition halls are still empty - for nowImage: Heneghan Peng Architects

It is a cumulative process. We will start off with an art collection. The process by which we will acquire art will be research-driven. So the research team will decide on the themes, and we will try to interpret those themes for the public into exhibitions.

Through these research projects, we will identify the art, objects, films, photos that we think would be good to have in the collection, and during this gradual process, we will purchase them, or borrow them for the museum. So what you will see are different exhibitions, online projects. These exhibitions will be shown here and in the satellite locations as well.

One of the main challenges of the museum will be to have Palestinians visit the museum in Birzeit. Those living in Gaza or in other Arab countries might not be able to come the Occupied West Bank because of Israeli travel restrictions...

This is another very important aspect of this museum. It is a transnational museum. The building in Birzeit will be part of a network of partnerships and branches in the future. This is how we can reach Palestinians outside of Palestine, but also those in the country, in Gaza for example, or maybe those in Haifa or Jaffa who can't reach the West Bank for whatever reason.

We describe Birzeit as the mothership, with satellites wherever we have partnerships. A week after we open in Birzeit, an exhibition will also open in a cultural center in Beirut, on the political history of Palestinian embroidery. So this is really the beginning of the road.

Palestinian Museum in Birzeit, West Bank, Copyright: Tania Kraemer/DW
In addition to the exhibition hall and the collections' archives is a garden on the terrace. Its plants and crops tell a part of the cultural history of the PalestiniansImage: DW/T.Kraemer

There are many smaller museums and exhibition centers throughout the Westbank, and there is an archeological museum in Gaza. What role do you think this museum will play?

It won't be a "national" museum per se - we are just part of the collective effort. We are the most recent, the biggest, and I'd say we are lucky to probably have the best infrastructure. I think our main distinction is that we can enjoy a degree of editorial and intellectual independence that most museums cannot, because they don't have financial independence or they are supported by a political faction or the Palestinian Authority for example. Inside Israel, some Palestinian museums depend on money from the Israeli ministry of culture.

So we have the privilege to enjoy editorial independence because we are funded by a privately run organization [Eds: the organization is called in Arabic Taawon, which means "cooperation"]. So that might give us an edge that other institutions might not have.

Our ambition to go beyond the country and its limits, with the transnational flag - that is an unusual approach. We also have the space to store objects and works of art in a museum environment; that is vital. We have very nice, German-built, storage facilities that don't exist anywhere else on that level of sophistication.

So when will we see the first exhibition?

The new director [Eds.: Mahmoud Hawari] started to work this week and he will be tasked with developing a new three-year program. There are lot of ideas to discuss, ranging from contemporary art to archeology. The country has such a very rich and diverse history - and not just in the last 100 years. I think we are just at the beginning and we have more than enough to explore in the next few years.