When museums try to be all things to all people, they usually fall on their face. Not so Jerusalem’s Israel Museum. Perched on a 20-acre campus overlooking this most ancient and beautiful of cities, this museum is the repository of the nation, of its art, its archeology, its culture, its history and its ethnography.
Although it was built only in 1965, the IM has taken its place as a world-class institution with a global reach. In 2010, in celebration of its 45 years as the largest cultural institution in Israel, new buildings, galleries, restaurants and education spaces, as well as many major renovations were unveiled throughout the sprawling campus, including an elegant new entrance. These spaces are filled with impressive collections in all areas of the fine arts. Not only the art, both ancient, modern and contemporary of the country, but also with far-reaching collections of European, Asian, Oceanic, Pre-Colombian, African, and other examples of the arts from around the globe. The IM also has an important photography collection, dating from the earliest days of that art to the present.
One of the most important and impressive of the museum’s permanent exhibitions is the Shrine of the Book, which houses not only the Dead Sea Scrolls, the oldest biblical manuscripts in the world, but also many other rare biblical manuscripts, such as a scrap from the Aleppo Codex, which rescued from fire and was hidden for centuries. Adjacent to the Shrine is a scale-model of the city of Jerusalem as it was during the period of the Second Temple, which offers a glimpse into the past of the city that surrounds the museum.
The beautiful Billy Rose Sculpture Garden, originally designed by Isamu Noguchi in 1965 is filled with desert vegetation, with an Asian sensibility. The Garden is punctuated by such iconic works as Robert Indiana’s Ahava (LOVE, in Hebrew), Anish Kapoor’s monumental, gleaming, site-specific work, “Turning the World Upside Down, Jerusalem” which reflects both the sky and the built landscape, all upside-down, and works by Claes Oldenburg, Jacques Lipschitz, Henry Moore, Picasso and Rodin. The combination of the vegetation, the sweeping views over Jerusalem itself, and world-class sculptures makes for an immersion experience in art like none other.
Because the campus of the Israel Museum is so spacious, it can host a raft of concerts, and such significant installations as Olafur Eliasson’s “Whenever the Rainbow Reappears,” a 43-foot-long exploration on canvas of the color spectrum visible to the human eye. More recently, Israeli architect/designer Ron Arad’s “720,” an installation in-the-round of 5600 silicone rods, with video projections shown both inside and outside the huge circle, created by both Israeli artists and others from around the world, drew enormous and appreciative crowds. This installation lit up the sky of the city for over a month and served as the centerpiece of the 2012 “Jerusalem Season of Culture Festival,” and was described by the BBC as a “new way of seeing art.”
A recent visit to the Israel Museum provided a true embarrassment of riches. “Where to begin?” is the challenge. In early September, in addition to its vast permanent holdings, there was a fascinating exhibit exploring the world of the Hasidim of Israel, filled with historic artifacts, a rich trove of traditional costumes including children’s clothing, wedding dresses and a huge variety of headgear, ritual objects, drawings, engravings music and videos. This exhibit not only offers an intriguing view into a hidden world for the uninitiated, it has also drawn huge numbers of Ultra-Orthodox people to the exhibit, a cohort that rarely visits museums.
As part of the archeological offerings, there was a small but compelling special exhibition, “White Gold: The World’s Earliest Coins.” There was an exhibit of Jewish women’s clothing, dating from the first half of the 19th century, from the city of Ioannana in northern Greece, with a beautiful array of rich textiles. There was a exhibit of landscapes on paper by Frank Auerbach, an exhibit on the Kabuki theater of Japan, and a small but beautiful exhibit, “Divine Messengers: Angels in Art,” with examples of angel paintings from ancient to modern times and from around the world.
The Israel Museum has no specific acquisition fund. What it does have is a group of committed supporters in Israel, America and around the globe, who have vast resources and wide-ranging sensibilities, who donate not only art but also buildings, exhibits and programs, keeping the museum strong, au courant and vibrant. With over 500,000 pieces, the Israel Museum, in the very heart of the city of Jerusalem, is an international treasure.
Isamu Noguchi noted, upon his completion of the Billy Rose Sculpture Garden in 1965, that the garden sits “Amid a sea of stones….Here is a consciousness of the earth upon which we stand. It is free, open, a place of release….The walls are like the hills of Judea, the wings of prayer touching the sky; Jerusalem is an emotion shared by all of us.”

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