Palestinian Museum to open - with no exhibits

The $33 million Palestinian Museum will open today, with top dignitaries such as President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority expected to attend. A spokesman said the museum will be open to the public, free of charge, from June 1, even if the
The $33 million Palestinian Museum will open today, with top dignitaries such as President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority expected to attend. A spokesman said the museum will be open to the public, free of charge, from June 1, even if there are no exhibits.PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

Institution's board disagreed with director over long-planned show, leading to his ouster

BIRZEIT (West Bank) • When the US$24 million (S$33 million) Palestinian Museum celebrates its opening today, it will have almost everything: A stunning, contemporary new building; soaring ambitions as a space to celebrate and redefine Palestinian art, history and culture; an outdoor amphitheatre; and a terraced garden.

One thing the museum will not have is exhibits. The long-planned - and much-promoted - inaugural exhibit Never Part, highlighting artefacts of Palestinian refugees, has been suspended after a disagreement between the museum's board and its director, which led to the latter's ouster.

Still, President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority and other dignitaries are expected to attend the opening ceremony .

Mr Omar al-Qattan, the museum's chairman, said Palestinians were "so in need of positive energy" that it was worthwhile to open even an empty building, conceding that the next phase, including the exhibits, "is the more exciting one".

In the West Bank, where Palestinians have for years struggled to build political and civic institutions while resisting Israel's occupation, the fate of the exhibition may say as much about the realities of Palestinian society as any art collection could.

Since the signing of the Oslo peace accords with Israel in the mid-1990s, Palestinian cultural and social initiatives have often failed to gain traction and find leadership.

Never Part, developed over years by ousted director Jack Persekian, was to feature artistic interpretations of things such as keys and photographs that Palestinians have kept from the homes they fled or were forced from in what is now Israel.

The museum is backed by private organisation Taawon - Arabic for cooperation - and is not affiliated with any political entity.

Mr Persekian, who runs an art gallery called the Al Mamal Foundation for Contemporary Art in Jerusalem, said he had agreed to leave after the museum's senior management unceremoniously told him that it no longer favoured the project, but he said he did not know why.

"I can't fathom what happened," he said. "Waste."

Mr Qattan said Mr Persekian had not sufficiently built expertise among staff, and that outside artists had criticised his concept of the exhibition.

Although there are a number of what Palestinian business consultant and human rights activist Sam Bahour called "niche museums" in the West Bank and Gaza, the Palestinian Museum would be the largest institution of its kind.

The museum earlier this month announced a new director, Mr Mahmoud Hawari, who it called "lead curator at the British Museum" and a specialist in early Islamic art, architecture and archaeology.

But a spokesman for the British Museum would not confirm that Mr Hawari was lead curator, saying only that "he was a visiting academic".

A spokesman said the museum will be open to the public, free of charge, from June 1, though it is unclear what will be inside to look at.

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 18, 2016, with the headline 'Palestinian Museum to open - with no exhibits'. Print Edition | Subscribe