No one is happier about the renovations under way at Israel's largest and most famous museum than the security guards at the nearby Bible Lands Museum. They say that every day, dozens of first-time visitors looking for the Israel Museum pass through the Bible Museum security gates before realizing their mistake.
Up to now, the fabulous, 20-acre, half-million-artifact collection called the Israel Museum has been upstaged by the Bible Museum across the street, with even its next-door neighbor — a gaudy red-and-yellow mini-mart — partly obscuring its entrance. Once inside, virtually all of the million visitors a year agree that the Israel Museum more than earns its status as a world-class repository of art, archaeology, history and culture.
The problem lies in finding it.
Giving the museum a new face — in the form of a new entrance pavilion — is just part of what the three-year, $80 million refurbishment is designed to achieve.
"We're reorganizing, redefining, relocating some collections and improving accessibility," says James S. Snyder, the museum's director since 1996. "In all, we're adding only 80,000 square feet of new construction. But because we're reorganizing some of the building functions, we'll actually be adding about 200,000 square feet of gallery space to our current campus of 500,000 square feet."
Beyond that, visitor flow through the museum has been rethought and redesigned.
"The new entrance will take you directly into the campus, bring you to a kind of 'ardo,' from which all the exhibition wings will be centrally organized. You'll be able to walk on top, or through a level underground passage, sheltered from the elements and wheelchair accessible," explains Snyder. "The point is, we're preserving the amazing architectural character of the original museum — we're just making it more accessible, with a more rational flow."
Snyder has nothing but praise for the museum's original design. "The museum opened in 1965," he says. "Teddy Kollek, then-mayor of Jerusalem, had great vision in putting it on the top of this Givat Ram hill. From here, the timeless view of the rocky Jerusalem landscape lies before you, with the Knesset and National Library in the distance.
"The architect, Alfred Mansfeld, created an entirely original concept, probably the greatest example of international modernism ever accomplished. Mansfeld was an interesting guy, born in St. Petersburg, Bauhaus-trained, came to Palestine and became head of the department of archaeology at the Technion in Haifa. The Israel Museum was his project — his design recreated an international modernist equivalent of an Arab village on a Jerusalem hill.
"The intent was that it would grow organically — which is exactly what it did, expanding incrementally to 10 times its original size. So our plan now is not to change the basic architecture; we want to retain that modernist feeling.
"What we want to change is the experience of arrival, the provision of services, and to offer a more coherent path of movement throughout the campus."
Plans for refurbishing have been under discussion for a long time. Almost 10 years ago, a foundation put up $50 million for the refurbishing job, and an American architectural firm submitted a plan that would have improved the entrance and added an underground parking lot.
Locally, the redesign became controversial and was eventually dropped. One of the problems was that for the $50 million, the underground parking was really the only improvement. The gallery space wouldn't have been enhanced or expanded in any significant way.
For the current $80 million — $60 million of it from private donors all over the world — Snyder says that the museum will undergo "transformational renewal."
The redesign also reflects the modernist influences of Pennsylvania-born James Snyder himself, who credits his southwestern Pennsylvania childhood with much of his artistic formation.
"I grew up near Pittsburgh and went to boarding school in a very beautiful spot," he says. "It made me appreciate — from a very early age — the power of culture and sympathetic landscape."
Snyder attended Harvard, then spent 22 years at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, overseeing development and expansion there, including the MoMA Tower of Modern Art.
"I was a perfectly happy person at MoMA," he reports. "I was working in an area that was perfectly suited to my talents.
"Although my wife and I had considered working in some foreign environment — mostly to give our kids some non-Manhattan life experience — we hadn't thought of Jerusalem. But they called, and I came to see the museum.
"As I walked through it, I decided it was the most magnificent integrated setting for art and archaeology in an architectural landscape I'd ever seen. It was hugely powerful, and the potential for the development of the site — to enhance the power of the landscape and express the culture of the lives of the people who experience it — was phenomenal. I couldn't pass it up."
Today, as enormous cranes shift elements of the museum from place to place, as drills continue to whine and construction workers study blueprints, Snyder emphasizes that the museum won't close for a single day.
"We're wide open," he proclaims.
"In May 2010, when we celebrate the 45th anniversary of the Israel Museum, what we'll offer is not many museums under one roof, but one integrated timeline of material culture."