The Palestine Archaeological Museum (Rockefeller)


South Gallery at  the Rockefeller Museum, The J.H. Iliffe collection

The Palestine Archaeological Museum (Rockefeller)

By Yara Saqfalhait*

The ruins, monuments, plants, people and artifacts of Palestine have been the subject of curiosity and avid documentation for centuries. It is perhaps surprising, therefore, that the modern urge to group historical ‘discoveries’ under a common roof, to be appreciated and contemplated at room temperature, behind glass surfaces and with the guidance of contextualizing labels, was not indulged in Palestine until 1938. The Palestine Archaeological Museum, currently known as The Rockefeller Museum, was founded following a period in which the once purely religious international interest in the Holy Land had given way to a more secular curiosity. It serves as a record not only of the country’s history, but of the various ways in which that history has been interpreted, presented and even appropriated in the years since the Museum’s inception.

The Museum was first opened to the public in 1938, during a period that saw the establishment of archaeology as an independent discipline. Archaeological excavations in Palestine exceeded mere attempts to uncover the past; they actively contributed in the present at which they were carried out, as well as in paving the way for its future. It was through archaeological surveys, for example, that the Palestine Exploration Fund (PEF) mapped the region for future British military, imperial and ideological interests in the late 19th century; these were the nucleus for the modern-day maps of Palestine.

The early twentieth century was in fact hailed as the era of the first ‘scientific’ excavations, many of which took place in Palestine. However, there were often considerations other than the purely scientific at play when the time came to display archaeological findings. Like painting, writing and photography, archaeology has proved a useful tool for constructing a particular reality in Palestine. Carefully assorted artifacts from the plenitude unearthed were selected for preservation and display, ones that served to affirm the Biblical narrative in light of which Palestine was always seen.

“Discoveries” was the term usually used to describe what these artifacts were. Discovery entails revelation, an encounter with the new and unknown, but archaeology at this time was more an attempt to confirm the already “known” and anchor it with a select assortment of findings. Today, the original glass cabinets displaying polished and carefully positioned artifacts unearthed in Palestine during the 1920s and 30s still line both sides of the longitudinal Southern gallery of the Museum. The exhibits stretch back in age as far as two million years ago, but they also seem to embody a twentieth-century narrative of archaeological “exploration” and institutionalization.

Somewhat unusually for the period, the unearthed Palestinian objects would not be transported overseas to join celebratory collections of mummies and tombs in the British Museum. Rather, they would be exhibited in their homeland, in a building whose design, to the modern observer, reveals newly conflicted attitudes towards the role of the colonizer in preserving the heritage of its colonies. Designed by Austen Harrison, the chief architect at the Mandate Public Works Department, the museum’s simultaneously localized and abstracted European architectural style seems to mediate between two conflicting conceptions of the British role in Palestine. In an apparent attempt to resolve the stylistic dilemma posed by these two ideas, it uses contemporary European architecture to express British cultural superiority, whilst the more paternalistic conception of the role of the colonial power as a trusteeship is represented by the presence of local architectural style.

In the aftermath of the 1948 Nakba, the Museum was run by the Jordanian Department of Antiquities; in 1956 an international board of trustees took control, and then in 1966 it was nationalized by King Hussein. Following the six-day war in 1967, during which Israeli forces occupied East Jerusalem, the Museum was captured by the Israeli army. It was at this point that it was officially renamed The Rockefeller Museum.

Those wishing to visit the Museum will find it beside the city walls of Jerusalem, overlooking the Mount of Olives. It stands on a plot previously known as Karm Al-Sheikh that originally belonged to an old Palestinian family, the Al-Khalilis; their nearby summer residence, Qasr El-Sheikh, was one of the first structures to be erected outside the old city walls. The Museum is currently jointly managed by the Israel Museum and the Israel Antiquities Authority.

*Researcher at the Palestinian Museum           

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