CJP’s Israel Advocacy spent last week in Israel with a group from Harvard University, visiting some of the success stories that make up the Start-Up Nation. Nancy Katz, director of CJP’s Israel Advocacy and herself an alum of Harvard and a former professor at Harvard Kennedy School, is blogging about the group’s experiences and impressions.

Today we toured the Israel Museum with its director, James Snyder (Harvard class of 1973), with an eye to the unique renovation and reimagining the museum completed last summer.

created at: 2012-01-19Snyder described how, as a student of modern art  who had never visited Israel and knew no Hebrew, to his own surprise he found himself in 1996 directing a collection spanning nearly one million years.  He did, however, have an impressive background in leading museums, most notably New York’s MoMA, where he worked for 22 years.

The Israel Museum posed aunique set of challenges – how to display a huge collection in a space designed in 1965 as separate buildings without increasing the physical size of the museum, or as Snyder said, “to get bigger without actually getting bigger.”

That required some ingenuity, and an architect who would be able to increase interior space without altering the museum’s character. He hired James Carpenter, whom he termed “an architect’s architect.”

“We hired [Carpenter] because of his great sensitivity to light. We decided not to bring in a name architect, but rather someone who would be prepared to subordinate to the ethos of the original design and to meld it with the new one,” he said.

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Carpenter is known for his use of natural light, and his mandate was to use the existing grid, geometry and platform of the 1965 design (made of Jerusalem stone) to increase significantly gallery space to house the growing collection. Forty-five years and $100 million later – much of it collected as a result of Snyder’s fundraising efforts – the renovated and re-imagined museum was opened.

We learned some of the ways Carpenter and Snyder accomplished this during the tour, including an entrance hall that aimed to “evoke a sense of composure and serenity, to get you out of the cacophony that is Israel,” Snyder said.  The first exhibit is a contemporary video and photo installation, that all visitors, regardless of age, can relate to. Snyder said the installation has a “subliminal message about cultures kissing.”

It’s almost overwhelming to consider how much there is to see at the museum, which houses the largest collection of art in the Middle East. For that reason, very judicious editing of the collection was a key aspect of the museum redesign, Snyder said. 

Four synagogues from around the world have been rescued, reconstructed and restored inside, including one from Suriname and another from India. A towering sculpture from an Israeli artist entitled, “The Boy from Tel Aviv,” is reminiscent of Michaelangelo’s David. The boy represents an immigrant from Ethiopia.

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The vast collection has been made much more manageable through the re-design. It has also become almost completely accessible for people with disabilities with the renovation. Learn more about the museum here.