BIRZEIT, May 17 — When the US$24 million (RM96.3 million) Palestinian Museum celebrates its opening tomorrow, it will have almost everything: a stunning, contemporary new building; soaring ambitions as a space to celebrate and redefine Palestinian art, history and culture; an outdoor amphitheatre; a terraced garden.
One thing the museum will not have is exhibits.
The long-planned — and much-promoted — inaugural exhibit, Never Part, highlighting artefacts of Palestinian refugees, has been suspended after a disagreement between the museum’s board and its director, which led to the director’s ouster. President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority and other dignitaries are expected to attend the opening ceremony, but a spokeswoman acknowledged Sunday that “there will not be any artwork exhibited in the museum at all.”
Omar al-Qattan, the museum’s chairman, said Palestinians were “so in need of positive energy” that it was worthwhile to open even an empty building. “Symbolically, it’s critical,” he said, conceding that the next phase, including the exhibits, “is the more exciting one.”
In the West Bank, where Palestinians have for years struggled to build political and civic institutions while resisting Israel’s occupation of the territory, the fate of the exhibition may say as much about the realities of Palestinian society as any art collection could. Since the signing of the Oslo peace accords with Israel in the mid-1990s, Palestinian cultural and social initiatives have often failed to gain traction and find consistent leadership.
Many Palestinian activists see the ageing Abbas, 81, and his administration as increasingly feckless in their attempts to build an effective government, but a new generation has not risen to replace them. The museum is backed by a private organisation, Taawon — Arabic for cooperation — and is not affiliated with any political entity.
Sam Bahour, a Palestinian business consultant and human rights activist, said that, considering the ossified state of many organisations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, a manager’s being forced out could be considered a sign of institutional health, or at least lively debate. But he called the decision to open the museum without any exhibits “shocking.”
“If there’s no substance,” Bahour said, “I wouldn’t open it.”
Never Part, developed over several years by the ousted director, Jack Persekian, was to feature artistic interpretations of things like keys and photographs that Palestinians around the world have kept from the homes they fled or were forced from in what is now Israel.
Persekian, who runs an art gallery called the Al Mamal Foundation for Contemporary Art in Jerusalem, said he had agreed to leave after the museum’s senior management unceremoniously told him that it no longer favoured the project, but he said he did not know why.
“I can’t fathom what happened,” he said, offering a succinct description of the result of his work for the museum: “Waste.”
Qattan, the museum chairman, said that his team had decided that Persekian had not sufficiently built expertise among staff members during his tenure of 3 1/2 years, and that outside artists had criticised his conception of the exhibition.
“We didn’t feel that what was delivered was up to scratch,” Qattan said.
Although there are a number of what Bahour called “niche museums” in the West Bank and Gaza, the Palestinian Museum would be the largest institution of its kind.
The building, designed by Heneghan Peng, an architectural firm in Dublin, will host the high-profile opening ceremony a few days after the 68th anniversary of what Palestinians call the Nakba, or catastrophe — essentially, Israel’s founding and the conflict that followed, which displaced hundreds of thousands of Palestinians.
The spokeswoman said the ceremony was only to celebrate the completion of the building. She said it would be open to the public, free of charge, starting June 1, though it is unclear what will be inside to look at.
The museum announced in a news release this month that it had named a new director, Mahmoud Hawari, who it called “the lead curator at the British Museum” and a specialist in early Islamic art, architecture and archaeology, among other topics.
A spokeswoman for the British Museum would not confirm that Hawari held the position of lead curator there, saying only that “he was a visiting academic at the British Museum.” A spokeswoman for Taawon said on Monday morning that the information in the release was based on a curriculum vitae that Hawari had provided.
In the news release by the Palestinian museum, Hawari said it would be an institution that “links Palestinians together, at home and in exile, wherever they may live.”
Qattan said future exhibitions might explore the cultural meaning of martyrdom, the debate over which people inhabited the area first — and whether that question makes historical sense — as well as the more recent departures of religious and ethnic minorities.
“If we as an independent institution can’t tread into these tricky areas, then who is going to?” Qattan said. “Nobody is. That’s the power of culture.” — The New York Times