BIRZEIT, West Bank — On the eve of the opening of the new $24 million history and culture museum he helped create, Omar al-Qattan is ready for everybody’s question, which is essentially: Why isn’t there any art on the walls?
The long-awaited Palestinian Museum opened its doors for a gala reception on Wednesday to celebrate the building’s inauguration, a party that drew many diplomats and dignitaries, as well as artists and deep-pocketed Palestinian capitalists from the West Bank and abroad.
So where are the exhibits? The Palestinian embroidery, the traditional folk crafts? The Roman-era glass, the 1970s PLO posters, the vintage photography? Where is the ephemera of the Palestinian diaspora that was promised a year ago — the old house keys and Ottoman-era land titles that tell the story of exile and loss, what Palestinians call the “Nakba,” their “catastrophe” or “cataclysm” that accompanied the creation of the Israeli state in 1948?
Where is all the stuff?
Qattan said the brief answer is that there really isn’t any stuff — yet — but there will be. The museum board of directors decided by necessity that they would build their museum first and amass collections and stage exhibits later.
That the Palestinian Museum is opening without an inaugural exhibit seems embarrassing at first — and it supports the impression that the Palestinians simply cannot get their act together, that they have built an empty monument.
On the front of the New York Times culture pages this week was the headline “Palestinian Museum Is Set to Open, Empty of Art.” The newspaper the National, published out of the United Arab Emirates, went with “Palestinian museum opens offering hope but lacking exhibits.”
Qattan disagreed that anything was lacking.
“Some institutions build a shell around their existing collections. We decided to build the institution first,” he said.
“If we had built this in Sweden with government subsidies, I would be opening a museum today with an amazing collection and a wonderful exhibit,” he said.
“Instead, we built a new museum in the West Bank entirely with private funds, at a time when fundraising has been especially challenging,” he said. “We built a museum despite checkpoints, walls, occupation.”
Qattan, born in Beirut, is a University of Oxford graduate in English literature, a film producer with Cannes credits and scion of a family whose construction company just built the Kuwait National Library. He lives in London. His family’s A.M. Qattan Foundation is a major donor to the project, alongside 30 others, such as the privately owned Bank of Palestine and successful Palestinian families, most of whom made their fortunes abroad.
At a news conference on Tuesday and in interviews afterward, Qattan politely but pointedly pressed reporters to see all he and his fellow founders had achieved.
“We have done something amazing,” he said, pointing to the building.
The Palestinian Museum is nestled on a hilltop with panoramic views stretching to the Mediterranean Sea at Birzeit University north of Ramallah. The new building, the first of two phases, is 36,000 square feet of cutting-edge architecture and already award-winning; it is the first building in the Palestinian territories to be awarded a highly sought-after Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design rating for sustainability. It was designed by the Dublin firm Heneghan Peng. There are climate-controlled conservation and display areas, with security systems, built to international standards that meet criteria that would allow for major museums around the world to lend material for shows — if they can get the stuff through Israeli customs.
Fair to say, there is nothing quite like it in the West Bank or Gaza.
The lead architect, Roisin Heneghan, said the vision was for the low-slung triangles of limestone, marble and glass to rise from the stony landscape of olive groves and incorporate terraced hillsides with a native garden watered by buried cisterns. The landscape designer is Lara Zureikat from Jordan. Heneghan said Zureikat couldn’t get a visa from Israel to attend the opening.
The architect said that it would be nice to have an opening exhibit but that many newly built museums open without them.
“There is almost always a lag between when the contractor hands over the keys and when they stage a first exhibit,” she said.
Heneghan thought it no big deal that it would take a while to stage a first exhibit. She said it takes at least a month to fine-tune the climate and humidity. She pointed toward workers who were still finishing plumbing work in the bathrooms and installing turn keys on interior doors — a day before the inauguration.
Still, it may be at least a year before the Palestinian Museum stages its first show in the West Bank.
The museum’s new director, Mahmoud Hawari, apologized to reporters for not having a business card.
“It is my first day on the job,” he explained.
Literally? “Yes,” he said. “I just arrived.”
Asked what his first exhibit might be, Hawari confessed he wasn’t sure.
“We have to see what has been done and where we are,” he said.
The museum’s previous director, Jack Persekian, parted ways from the museum in December over “disagreements about management style and planning controls,” Qattan said.
Hawari said that he wanted to hire homegrown curators but that there are no university programs in the West Bank to train Palestinians in museum arts. “We will have to seek partnerships abroad,” said Hawari, a specialist in Islamic art and an archaeologist who trained at the University of London.
The museum has been gathering photographs for its “Family Album Project,” which will probably be displayed in the future. Likewise, another project, called “Never Part,” has been postponed. The exhibition focused on the personal belongings that Palestinians carried when they left their homes.
Luay Khoury, chairman of Projacs, the company that served as lead contractor for the new museum, donated his services and sits on the board of the Palestinian Museum. He said the new institution will not be what many, including his Palestinian elders, expect.
“Some people wanted a ‘Remembrance Museum,’ which would be the traditional approach,” Khoury said, a kind of Nakba museum, explaining that many members of Palestinian society thought they would build a museum that would focus exclusively on the Palestinian struggle against Israel.
“We want to do something different, something for the young people, for tomorrow,” Khoury said. “This is controversial.”
“We wanted to open it up,” Qattan said. “We want the past, of course, but the future, too.”
When they put up their first exhibit, the people will get to see — and decide.