The political context of the current Palestinian cultural mobilisation

Palestine is neither a nation-state nor a postcolonial entity; today, it is a fragmented, diasporic and occupied nation. Most Palestinians live as refugees outside of their original homeland, the descendants of those forced to leave what became the state of Israel in 1948. Many others live in the West Bank and Gaza, or else in Israel. In 1994, the Oslo Accords set up the Palestinian Authority (PA) as the Palestinian ‘proto-state’, that is, as an interim body to oversee the transition to statehood in the occupied territories. Yet, the failure of the so-called peace process left that transition suspended. Today, the PA is a non-sovereign entity that administers a series of disconnected areas of the West Bank and Gaza from which the Israeli military has withdrawn; around these areas, colonisation and settlement building proceed uninterrupted, and Israel retains control of external borders, airspace and all movement in and out of the Palestinian enclaves. Effectively, the occupation continues in a mutated form (Halper, 2000; Ophir and Azoulay, 2012). Politically, then, the Palestinian territories are characterised by what I would call ‘asymmetric dispersion’: Israeli colonial rule continues, while key state functions are performed by international donors and aid agencies, and a local infrastructure of Palestinian organisations working to provide essential services. Divided since 2007 into two major sections, one controlled by Islamist Hamas (Gaza) and the other by the secular-nationalist Fatah party (the West Bank), the PA is only one actor in this complex field, and clearly not the most powerful. These circumstances and particularly the tremendous growth of Israeli colonies since Oslo have made several pundits doubt the viability of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (Hilal, 2007).

In recent years, this fractured and conflict-ridden terrain has been the platform for a great flourishing of cultural activities and museum projects, including the initiatives described below. Its agents understand themselves as participating in a culture of resistance, yet, according to some critics, they are actually contributing, albeit unintentionally, to a kind of normalisation of the occupation and the current status quo.

The impossible institution: Designing a Palestinian national museum

Since the Oslo Accords granted Palestinians a degree of autonomy, a number of small museums and exhibition spaces have been set up, in addition to older folklore-focused institutions. In most cases, these institutions are not PA but charitable societies, private foundations, NGOs and other ‘civil society’ institutions. A symptom of the PA’s failure thus far in completing its project of state building, a national museum in Palestine has long been, in the words ofjack Persekian (whose work we will return to shortly), a ‘practical impossibility’ (Pelgrom, 2007: 3). The establishment of the PA as an interim body was for many a promise of Palestinian statehood; yet, the latter has not come to pass. With no sovereign state, functioning national institutions have made room for improvised arrangements. National museums have been made possible only thanks to the creative nomadic practices of a number of Palestinian artists and cultural operators.

The Palestinian Museum is the institution that probably most closely resembles a national museum in the territories. This project, however, is a civil society one, initiated in the 1990s and still run by one of the major Palestinian NGOs, the Welfare Association (WA), financed with expatriate Palestinian capital. Tasked with producing a new concept, noted historian Beshara Doumani took over the Palestinian Museum in the late 2000s after the failure of earlier projects. He describes the story of the museum in the following way:

The early iterations of this project conceived of it as a traditional national museum. That is, a major commemorative structure built around a single chronological narrative from ancient times to the present. I conceptualize it, instead, as a mobilizing and interactive cultural project that can stitch together the fragmented Palestinian body politic by presenting a wide variety of narratives about the relationships of Palestinians to the land, to each other and to the wider world (2010, emphasis added).

The WA museum initiative highlights the difficulties of building a nineteenth-century-style national museum outside of the infrastructure of a sovereign state, and the challenges that arise when an NGO steps in to substitute for the latter. As Doumani emphasises, there is both a problem of the scale and ‘magnitude’ involved (an NGO undertaking a project with costs ranging into the hundreds of million of dollars) and a problem of representation (who has the right to represent the diversity of Palestinian voices?) (2011). Rarely self-sustainable, museums are very expensive to maintain and require guarantees of long-term institutional support.


Major obstacles to a Palestinian national museum project include a lack of funding and expertise, and crucially, the problem of its location: while this museum can only be located in Jerusalem, which Palestinians consider their historic capital, Israel opposes any kind of Palestinian institutional presence in the city it views as its capital and effectively controls (if against international law and UN resolutions, see B’Tselem, 2006).

Museums’ operational time frames are not those of the typical NGO, which works with a limited budget and short-term, project-like timetables. Doumani’s proposed means for overcoming these obstacles was a transnational museum: in his words, ‘not a museum-state as much as a museum-nation’ (2010), made up of a network of transnational centres or ‘rings’ as nodes of knowledge production and social mobilisation.’ This museum concept is in contrast to the traditional monumental building in a fixed location, marked by a large, costly collection and a single overarching narrative; as such, it was expected to mirror the diversity of Palestine and the plural meaning of Palestinianness, and to allow for different voices to be heard. Doumani wanted such a museum to act as an inclusive platform on which to produce interconnectivity, and as a true ‘embodiment of the Palestinian body-politic’ in its multiplicity, and as itself an ‘arena for the performance and reproduction of... peoplehood by Palestinians’ (2010) in the face of dispersion and fragmentation.

But the Palestinian museum that was eventually built in Birzeit is much closer in its architectural form to the earlier 1990s monumental conception rather than to the knots of memory idea espoused by Doumani and the long-time head of the museum’s task force, Omar Al-Qattan. A large museum building of stone and glass was completed in 2016 at a cost of $25 million and towers now over a landscaped, terraced garden of 40,000 m2 next to Ramallah; a further expansion is already planned. The architectural firm designing the museum is also building the new Grand Egyptian Museum by the pyramids (apparently, the largest ever archaeological museum), as well as a number of national cultural institutions across the world in what appears like a grand style of the nation-state in globalised times. While the original curatorial team wanted to make an exhibition without objects to represent the loss and dispossession at the heart of the Palestinian condition and to problématisé national narratives, there were a series of disagreements, and so this team resigned and the museum was inaugurated empty. A less provocative and more consensual approach was then chosen for the first exhibition of the museum, which opened in late 2017.

The impossible national museum thus appeared possible only ‘in a transnational not territorially-fixed setting’, or as an art performance. In this context of interrupted statehood, with its failed or (at the very least) troubled institutions, a few more ‘national museums’ have been realised in the form of mobile, cosmopolitan art projects. Blurring repetition and mockery of its standard form, these projects radically dislocate the museum by making it ‘portable’: a ‘nomadic’ project in exile. At the same time, these projects take their roles very seriously; in fact, they represent the very first instances of a Palestinian national museum and, more broadly, of a national art infrastructure. By mocking the museum format, they plant and nurture the seeds for future institutions.

3 If not otherwise noted, all following quotes in this section as well as the information and data on the WA Palestinian Museum come from my interview with Beshara Dumani (2011). He is, however, no longer the director of the project.

Khalil Rabah's Palestinian Museum of Natural

History and Humankind

First shown internationally at the 2005 Istanbul Biennial, artist Khalil Rabah’s museum prompted visitors to ask themselves: ‘But is it real?’ (Paynter, 2006). The same must have happened the year after, when the museum was installed in the shadow of the New Acropolis Museum in Athens. Although it changes according to the context of each exhibition, this installation usually consists of a museum-like display of artefacts organised thematically in a set of cabinets. The visitors’ movement across the installation space is also organised as if in a museum, framed by an entrance marked by a ticket desk and with a cafe at the end of the exhibition. This museum clearly mocks the traditional form of the so-called universal museum, those vast collections ranging from natural history to archaeology and art that constituted the core of the first national museums in the metropolitan centres (often born of colonial plunder, see Bennett, 1995; Bal, 1996). On display are fossils, bones and meteorites; upon closer inspection, however, one discovers that these are not ‘natural’ specimens, but artefacts, carefully crafted by Rabah out of wood from the olive tree, which is a key symbol of Palestine and Palestinian nationalism. Playing with the nature/culture dichotomy and its confusion, this critical device reveals a key convention of colonial displays, and indeed their enduring legacy within postcolonial national institutions.

But Rabah’s objective is not simply to critique the museum form and its entanglement with the colonial project and the oppression of native peoples. He turns a chief colonial institution such as the museum against itself. His project is not only one of critical representation - of mimesis — but also of poiesis, in the Ancient Greek sense of creation and making. At the Istanbul Biennial, the artist presented a show from the (allegedly) permanent collection of the ‘Museum of Natural History and Humankind’ with these comments:

Here this Museum presents an exhibition, ‘Palestine before Palestine’ from the permanent collection of the museum, which tells people that there is a museum with an established, permanent collection, and yet it only exists as an institution within an institution, in the transient event of the biennale.

This museum manifests itself in a number of museum-like operations, (mock) rituals of the art and cultural world. For example, in 2004, it organised one of the first ‘art’ auctions on Palestinian ground, the ‘Third Annual Wall Zone Sale’ at Ramallah’s Khalil Sakakini Cultural Center. Here, Rabah auctioned off objects collected around the Separation Wall in an ironic act of political protest at the devastations wrought by the eight-metre-high barrier that imprisons West Bank Palestinians in a number of enclaves. Another initiative, hosted by the London Brunei


This quote appears in ‘Displacement and Re-placement’, available online from http://www.culture (accessed 6 March 2018).

Gallery, involved the reading of over 50,000 names of the owners of the old buildings inscribed on the first Palestinian national inventory of historic properties - a counterpoint to the nearby display of ancient Oriental archaeology from Gaza of the colonial Petrie Collection (see O’Reilly, n.d.). Instantiations of the museums continue to this day in various locations across the globe, the last one, as I write, being the compilation of the museum catalogue by a group of scholars and artists.

Noteworthy is the name of the Museum of Natural History and Humankind’s exhibition ‘Palestine before Palestine’ (an exhibition within an exhibition within an exhibition, and here the boxes multiply), whose content is claimed to have come from the permanent collection of the museum. The preposition ‘before’ points to a crucial temporal dimension that is common to all of the initiatives discussed in this chapter. What I would call a ‘temporality of the promise’ is typical of national museums, particularly historical ones, but becomes overamplified in these initiatives. Donald Preziosi (2010) has argued that museums work by manufacturing belief in the prior existence and independent agency of what their objects are taken to represent, which is often the very spirit of a nation. Moreover, and this is crucial, they are marked by a peculiar sense of time that governs the relationship between museum representations and that which is represented. What Preziosi calls the mythological, ‘uncanny space-time of museology’ refers to

‘A certain sense of time as aspect: time as a syntactical relation between events connected in a causal relation of incompletion and fulfillment. In this regard, the “past” of the artefact/relic is not uncommonly staged as an incomplete manifestation or a prologue to what has now come to pass in the present place of observation. Every artefact is thus the relic of an absence: of an absent past which at the same time prefigures our present, which in turn fulfils, completes or “proves” what we imagine the past imagines to be its future’ (2010: 58).

Similarly, Rabah’s museum is a device that produces a sense of incompleteness and anticipation (Palestine before Palestine) and that calls for a future fulfilment. It is a promise of permanence, both of the museum itself (it is, after all, a museum with a permanent collection!) and of the entity evoked by its artefacts. This is not just a museum, however; rather, it is an artwork representing a particular museum, the Palestinian National Museum, which does not yet exist. Not simply a critical representation of such an institution, it becomes an anticipatory one.

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