The museum is located in the occupied West Bank. 100 years after the Balfour Declaration, its central task is to examine the meaning of nationhoodby Daniella Peled / October 6, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in November 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
When the Palestinian Museum opened its doors in Birzeit in May 2016, it was entirely empty. The £17m building, its angular limestone-clad shape alluding to the terraced landscape of its West Bank surroundings, had exhibition and education spaces, cafés and an open-air amphitheatre. What it didn’t have, due to a last-minute disagreement between the board and its former director Jack Persekian, was a collection to exhibit.
American and Israeli detractors gleefully claimed this as symbolic of the emptiness of the entire Palestinian claim to land, culture and nationhood. The lack of an inaugural show, they declared, was emblematic of the historic, self-defeating squabbling of Palestinian nationalism. “The fate of the exhibition may say as much about the realities of Palestinian society as any art collection could,” wrote the New York Times.
The mockery deployed a weapon regularly levelled against Palestinians—the outright denial of the existence of any real Palestinian nation. It’s an argument with longevity. A popular saying in the early days of Zionism was that it would provide “a land without a people for a people without a land.” Earlier this year, a book called A History of the Palestinian People: From Ancient Times to the Modern Era became a brief online bestseller. It was made up of 132 blank pages.
The museum is in part an answer to such “vicious, snotty, neo-imperialist” denial, as its ambassador-at-large and former chairman Omar al-Qattan describes it. He notes that delayed openings, curatorial squabbles and budget over-runs are all commonplace in the arts world. But then perhaps it was inevitable that Palestinians were going to be subject to an extra burden of symbolism. “Ours was a unique experience,” he continued. “I don’t know many museums created under a military occupation.”