Palestinian National Museum Opens, But Without Any Exhibitions

The National Palestinian Museum
A computer-generated image of the Palestinian Museum near the West Bank town of Birzeit. Palestinian Museum

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas opened the Palestinian national museum Wednesday, complete with sprawling terraced garden and outdoor amphitheater. There is just one hitch at the West Bank complex: this $24 million monument, dedicated to the Palestinian identity, is empty.

The stone building, located on the outskirts of the West Bank university town of Birzeit, hopes to tell the story of the Palestinian people and what they consider to be the Nakba, or disaster, when thousands of Palestinians were displaced after the creation of the State of Israel in 1948.

Besides the millions of Palestinians that remain in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, many now live in exile. Omar al-Qattan, the chairman of the Palestinian Museum, says that this institution will be one that all Palestinians can be proud of, giving them the opportunity to remember their shared history together.

"To collectively build something with Palestinian money and effort, to celebrate Palestinian history and culture, in a modern and progressive spirit, which wants to reach Palestinians wherever they may be, must be deeply significant for a people, most of whom continue to live in exile or under occupation–as a beacon of hope, of affirmation, and of unity," he says. "That is at least what I hope its significance is."

The museum cancelled the launch exhibition on Palestinian refugees, entitled "Never Part," after a disagreements between the board at the museum and a former director, Jack Persekian. The board has appointed a new director, Dr. Mahmoud Hawari, a research associate at the University of Oxford in England.

The disagreements have not been the only challenge that has plagued the project. Qattan says that the recruiting of specialized staff from abroad has been a challenge given the complex situation in the West Bank, with difficulties obtaining working visas for staff from the Israeli authorities. "The military occupation continues to be by far the biggest problem of all," he says.

While the challenges of launching a museum in the West Bank are at the front of Qattan's mind, elsewhere in the project things have proceeded more smoothly. Next week a satellite exhibition—named "At The Seams: A Political History of Palestinian Embroidery"—will be launched in Beirut, with plans to host further satellite exhibitions in other Middle Eastern cities. Qattan compares the empty opening to that of the Maxxi in Rome and the African-American Museum at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C., which he says both opened with collections.

Qattan estimates that it will be another six months until visitors set their eyes on the first exhibition and, when that happens, the works in the museum will attempt to tell the story of the Palestinian people. While it is empty inside, the complex is playing host to a digital collection of thousands of Palestinian family photographs taken next to the museum.

Qattan says he is "so, so, so proud" of the project finally being realized and believes that the museum will only continue to grow in popularity when exhibitions are installed. "I really hope so. I think visitor numbers will be as good as our exhibitions, so let us wait and see."