Hanan Toukan and Adila Laïdi-Hanieh on the Palestinian Museum
The Palestinian Museum sits nestled among the fertile hills of the West Bank in the university town of Birzeit, several miles north of Ramallah. Its $24 million, LEED-certified campus—designed by Dublin-based architecture firm Heneghan Peng—was inaugurated on May 18, 2016, days after the sixty-eighth anniversary of the Nakba, the events that led to the forced displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians. Five years on, the museum has a robust programming schedule and a string of successful exhibitions under its belt. To further explore the role museums can play in reclaiming narratives of dispossession, Artforum invited scholar Hanan Toukan and the museum’s director, Adila Laïdi-Hanieh, to talk about building an institution under colonialism. The conversation took place in May amid Israeli airstrikes in Gaza.
HANAN TOUKAN: When the Palestinian Museum first opened in May 2016, most of the reviews and scholarly analyses focused on it as an idea rather than as a concrete institution. Specifically, writers considered what such a museum meant in the colonial context of Palestine, its relation to the land on which it exists, and how this relation reveals processes of dispossession and appeals for reclamation that define life under Israeli colonialism.
The museum has now been running as a full-fledged cultural institution on Palestinian territory for a few years. Theoretical questions have materialized into real experience, albeit one that is still new. How has the museum been able to cross the lines it initially envisioned itself crossing? When the museum opened, many conversations—sometimes angry, sometimes curious—revolved around a simple question: Who and what is the Palestinian Museum for? Much of the media ascribed the museum’s empty halls on its inauguration to the condition of dispossession in Palestine. And yet alongside these often-joking musings, there was a pragmatic desire to improve everyday lived realities: People simply wanted a museum for their kids to go spend time in and learn from on the weekends, a place to see good art and meet friends for a chat in a cafe. Students at the nearby Birzeit University were interested in knowing more about contemporary art. And artists wanted a cultural space that was locally and globally positioned to show their work, where they could teach and discuss within a transnational and transcultural frame. How has the curatorial team of the museum managed to juggle these different needs and desires and translate them into programs that tackle the dynamic nature of Palestinian society, both for those rooted on the ground in Palestine and those residing outside of it?
ADILA LAÏDI-HANIEH: Let me provide some context first. I came in as director in September 2018 and was immediately asked by the then board to set a schedule of exhibitions for the next few years and develop the museum’s first-ever five-year program strategy. Which I did.
In parallel, I worked on developing the internal institutional structure. Some might think this is boring, but I believe in it passionately. The colonial neoliberal dispensation under which we live—the reign of the consultant and the freelancer—leads to a generalized weakness and hollowing out of Palestinian institutions; it is killing the cultural sector. I sound old-fashioned, but my goal is to develop a framework wherein professional practices are grown, experience is accumulated, and standards of excellence are set: to build an institution that will survive my departure. We need strong institutions at every level of society in Palestine that provide centers for people to work in and develop in a sustainable manner. Reclaiming your narrative and your history and exploring it on your own terms takes time and a good, stable team.
I then created two new departments, one dedicated to curating, exhibitions, and collections and the other to research, education, and publications. This way, we can plan ahead for the next two or three years and develop, test, and evaluate practices and programs. We know what conferences we are doing. We know what grants we are giving. We already have in-house conservation labs, digital programs, and an annual exhibition schedule. The museum is here to stay, so we can take our time in exploring certain themes and developing them in depth. We are not trying to be all things to all people all the time.
We are guided by a mission to produce knowledge about Palestine by bringing in new perspectives. Developing content requires a stable place where people invest their time. This is expensive. We are a nongovernmental organization in a country under colonial occupation, with a brain drain at one end and a diaspora barred from entering at the other. We depend on the goodwill of Palestinian donors who have a lot of urgent demands on their philanthropy. So we have to be careful stewards of these scarce resources. Further, we have large numbers of compatriots in Israeli jails, while others are arbitrarily killed on a regular basis.
What I do at the museum sits with this reality. I can look people in the eye with what we do while maintaining the highest standards for production and content and honoring the experiences and sacrifices of people who came before us, inside and outside Palestine.
“To put it bluntly, can the museum survive without the building that houses it, in the event that it is physically obliterated?” —Hanan Toukan
HT: We all know that art is fundamental to the human spirit. But at the end of the day, I understand that the Palestinian Museum is in the unique position of having to attend to the more immediate humanitarian crises that are part and parcel of anticolonial struggle. A lot of museum practitioners all over the world are living in luxury compared to this, so I am really intrigued by this idea that you have to be able to look another person in the eye and not justify but explain why you make the hard decisions you often have to.
ALH: No, we do not have to “explain” our work to anyone. We are part of this society, which we serve. But to clarify: We are not an art museum. The Palestinian Museum is a nongovernmental culture and history museum of Palestine. Or, if you will, a museum of the history, culture, and society of Palestine with a focus on the modern period in its larger dimensions.
As part of the new programs strategy I developed in 2019, we reconceptualized our mission as providing emancipatory learning experiences about Palestine. A learning experience may be an exhibition, a virtual-reality simulation, a family open day, school visits, a young designer’s summer school, symposia, publications, concerts, a play. Learning experiences can also be aesthetic experiences, inasmuch as they affect perceptions, senses.
This model was developed by guest curator Rachel Dedman in our 2018 exhibition “Labour of Love: New Approaches to Palestinian Embroidery.” It featured ethnographic material—costumes and their accessories—along with artworks, documents, audiovisual resources, and the like. In our most recent exhibition, “Printed in Jerusalem,” which we managed to open during the Covid-19 lockdown, we displayed material from printing presses. This is not art stricto sensu, but the fact that visitors are moving in a carefully lit gallery where the curators have partitioned the space and developed themes for their appreciation means we are not in a classroom either. It is a hybrid learning-aesthetic experience.
HT: I remember walking out of Rachel’s show overcome by what I saw, not because the embroidery was new to me—I had seen it countless times—but because of how it was encapsulated. The exhibition made me reimagine what this material means in the often politically turbulent lives of people who work in this thousands-of-years-old craft. In other words, I felt reconnected to a part of my past that I had always relegated to tradition. I realized later that tatreez [traditional Palestinian embroidery] finally became accessible to me because of how that show framed and encoded it.
ALH: Yes. Palestinian costumes are displayed in museums in Paris or London or Birmingham either as essentialized “fashion” or as ethnographic items. What was important about our exhibition was that it presented the political and sociomaterial context of the production, representation, and wearing practices of the dresses and their accessories. After I came in as director, we had guest curator Tina Sherwell’s exhibition “Intimate Terrains: Representations of a Disappearing Landscape” , which explored Palestinian artists’ relationship to place and belonging across modern and contemporary practices. It was the largest Palestinian art exhibition ever held anywhere. We opened up the space outside the main gallery to provide discursive context via infographics and documentary handouts about the political and historical events that informed the artworks.
HT: I’m thinking of the various strategies we employ to encounter art and culture when it is located in an institution. So in a cultural center there’s more freedom to play, right? Because you can cater to those who want to go for the aesthetic they will find at a conventional art museum, and at the same time you attract those who are interested in the heritage and politics from which these artworks might emerge in the context of Palestine.
ALH: The Palestinian Museum was never supposed to be a cultural center or an art museum. Anyway, in recent decades there has been a discursive turn in the contemporary art world, and we see artists and curators employing the tools of academic research—the archive, maps, documentary footage—and integrating these worlds into the museum. In terms of our exhibitions, we at the Palestinian Museum are doing it the other way around: starting with the discursive and the documentary and integrating art and conventions of art display.
HT: This question of boundaries between museum and cultural center—between the “local” and “global” audiences that animate each, and these audiences’ aesthetic tastes and desires—touches on the issue of class, doesn’t it? I bring up class here not only to ask who engages with the museum but also to question how the museum itself—as an institution that explicitly begins with the discursive, as you say, and then integrates art—rethinks or adds nuance to class categories in Palestine. Can and should the Palestinian Museum ask its audiences to think about the flow of money and the sites of capital in which it is embedded? Thinking more mundanely, is it one of the museum’s many jobs to change class attitudes and class experiences in Palestine?
ALH: For me, this is not an issue at all. In Palestine, the possession of cultural capital and the possession of economic capital do not necessarily coincide.
Living in Ramallah does not necessarily make one a privileged person. In terms of outreach, we have training programs and publications for teachers and for schoolchildren from all over the West Bank. We bus them in from Jenin, from Hebron, from areas under attack from Israeli settlers. Unfortunately, we cannot physically access Jerusalem or the Gaza Strip because of the Israeli occupation’s wall. We cannot access the ’48 areas’ schools at all, and they’re barred from coming here anyway. If they do come, they need to have an armed guard in the bus, and guns are not allowed in our museum. During the lockdown, we shifted all our educational programs online, and we will be expanding our online presence in coming years to reach Palestinian kids and families in the diaspora and in marginalized, hard-to-access areas.
HT: What can the European museum learn from the Palestinian Museum? Few today would dispute that museums are a product of the colonial apparatus. Critics have long drawn attention to how artifacts were acquired and transferred, how communities should represent their own histories, and so on.
Today, the mounting criticism and suspicion of the museum in the era of revolution and violent counterrevolution in which we are living are only being reinforced. Museums in Europe are facing a diversity crisis—cultural diversity is not enough anymore—compounded by a larger crisis of confidence on the part of their audiences. Everywhere, there are calls to decolonize the museum, to hold it accountable, to force it to reinterpret its exhibitions and collections in noncanonical ways, calls for curators to ethnically reflect the communities for which they purport to speak. The list is long. In the regional museum landscape, Arab Gulf museums are clear instances of how authoritarianism can enlist art to shape top-down projects of national identity and belonging, state-led societal development, and international soft power and public diplomacy.
“We are not going to sit on our hands and say, ‘The day Palestine is liberated, then we will open a museum.’ Palestine deserves a large, professionally run museum now, and we have it.” —Adila Laïdi-Hanieh
The epistemic foundation of the modern museum, in its different geographic and historic iterations of violence, partakes of a logic from which the Palestinian Museum is evidently set apart. The Palestinian Museum was born out of the need to continue surviving in a complex, postcolonial-yet-colonial reality. Perhaps it is my naive faith in the creativity and sheer brilliance of Palestinians to continue asserting themselves in the face of the military industry aimed at their obliteration, but I feel that the Palestinian Museum may in fact propose a way out of the conundrum many museums in the world find themselves in today. Do you agree? And if so, how can it do that?
ALH: Of course, I know about all these debates, if only because some museums asked us for partnerships precisely to offer more “diversified” fare to their changing audiences. But these are not debates we necessarily have. Living under occupation, and as part of this society, our mission is to narrate the undernarrated and provide different learning experiences to our actual and potential audiences. Internally, my colleagues and I do not come from the rarefied world of the ivory-tower museum, where expertise and connoisseurship police class boundaries and enforce privilege. Rather, we are driven by civic values.
Further, as a country under occupation, Palestine had no large-scale museums before ours, and as a result, museology was not a viable local career choice. We cannot hire people from the outside world with museum experience because they would not be granted work permits by the Israeli occupation. So we employ local people who are legally allowed to live and work here. My colleagues are young, all Palestinian, and majority female, and they come from diverse social, geographic, and educational backgrounds. Our staff represent our society; they studied locally as well as at European and US universities. A few of them participated in training programs online or in person through the British Museum and Sharjah Museums Authority, and we are always planning for more.
HT: Obviously, the audience, from what you describe, comes from different geographic locales. But also, the museum staff don’t have Harvard degrees or the training of specialty schools. They create and produce horizontally, embedded as they are in an unpredictable colonial context where checkpoints may stop you from getting to work that day, their houses or the house of someone they know may be demolished, and they might find out their sibling has been arrested or disappeared while picking olives one afternoon. Again, the list is long. But I guess what I want to say is this: While the postcolonial turn in cultural governance in the West has been consumed with dealing with colonial atrocities by promoting decolonial practices, there is a deafening institutional silence regarding Palestine’s ongoing colonial reality. Here we have an example before our very eyes that may gave insight into these atrocities and even offer a chance to rectify them. But really, Palestine is on its own, and the museum and concomitant cultural projects become a testament not only to survival in the face of eradication but to ingenuity in response to structural inequalities.
ALH: Right. But let me clarify why the Palestinian Museum adopted the model of the annual exhibition. We are indeed growing our permanent collections through diverse acquisition schemes, and we have partnerships with major European and US cultural institutions.
However, the bulk of Palestinian antiquities and archaeological items are in Israeli hands. There is already a national Palestinian museum, but in occupied Jerusalem. Its nucleus was Ottoman-era finds and collections in Palestine. In the 1930s, the British picked up where the Ottomans left off and established the Palestine Archaeological Museum, now the Rockefeller Museum. Since the military occupation of East Jerusalem in 1967, this museum has been run by the Israel Museum. The Israel Museum itself holds items taken from the Rockefeller Museum after 1967, in addition to numerous items from Gaza, Nablus, Jericho, etc. So what is left for us, the nongovernmental Palestinian Museum under a colonial dispensation, to show? This is why we have a hybrid solution for our exhibitions. We are not going to sit on our hands and say, “The day Palestine is liberated, then we will open a museum.” Palestine deserves a large, professionally run museum now, and we have it.
Decoloniality is a needed and welcome debate, but its focus is righting wrongs hundreds of years old. I’ve raised the issue at international forums, but our predicament has not yet made an impression: Our situation here is one of actual colonial expropriation and of colonialism in violation of all international norms and UN resolutions.
HT: As I read about Israel’s success in pushing forward its coronavirus-vaccine program while at the same time refusing to vaccinate Palestinians in the West Bank—something it is legally and morally obliged by the Geneva Conventions to do—or about the most recent violent cleansing of Jerusalem’s Palestinian inhabitants through dispossession of the residents of Sheikh Jarrah, I am reminded again of just how much of Israel’s control is conditioned by the tacit and even explicit approval of the international diplomatic community. The Palestinian Museum belongs to a territory and peoples that are every day in the process of resisting obliteration from one of the most brutal militaries in the world. Even if it is able to propose innovative and imaginative practices, I do wonder about its durability. As recent events demonstrate, Israel has never shown restraint when it comes to the Palestinian body or to Palestinian cultural institutions that attest to their historical and continued presence on the land. To put it bluntly, can the museum survive without the building that houses it, in the event that it is physically obliterated?
ALH: Look, it goes without saying: If you are a Palestinian institution, you are a transnational institution. This is why we have this excellent digital infrastructure, and tech-savvy colleagues, which allowed us to turn on a dime during the 2020 lockdown and produce intense and diverse online programming.
Now, since we are Palestinian, it is also a given that this physical risk exists wherever one is working and at a moment’s notice. I know, I used to run an art institution—the Khalil Sakakini Cultural Center [in Ramallah]—that was ransacked and looted by the Israeli army in 2002.
The Palestinian Museum was built as an act of faith in the future of Palestine and of Palestinians. Everyone here continues to work. But we also do not have to keep physical archives. Rather, we borrow endangered collections, conserve and digitize them, upload them to an open-access platform, and then return them to their owners. This is why we developed the Palestinian Journeys website in collaboration with the Institute for Palestine Studies and Visualizing Palestine, which is a bilingual free encyclopedia of Palestinian history.
HT: Basically, every time you receive photographs or any other objects or materials, you digitize and then return them?
ALH: No. We are growing our permanent collection. But I was speaking specifically about a project called the Palestinian Museum Digital Archive, which has been going on for three years.
HT: So you work for the future, but you have to live in the moment. You deal with the reality of the situation, and you keep going.
I want to go back to what the Palestinian museum can tell—or more show—the rest of the world. In a way, you’re keeping some objects alive by letting them have their lives elsewhere. I love this grassroots response to lived reality. And that’s why I insist on this idea that the Palestinian Museum is imaginative, that it’s proposing new ways for museums to deal with their objects. I hear you saying, “You know what, they’re part of people’s realities and lives.”
ALH: One solution is digitization. But another is narration. You do not need to narrate the history of Palestine only through exhibitions, and that is where our research and digital programs come in.
Now, I wanted to end on something positive. Every day, there are one, two, three problems, not ordinary museum-management problems but, you know, Palestinian-under-occupation problems. But despite all the incredible difficulties, our work is still an absolutely beautiful Palestinian journey. The work we do every day is beautiful. We are trying to redeem some of the tragic experiences and history of the Palestinian people. Every day, we try to honor the suffering and the incredible denial of dignity, the denial of justice, meted out to Palestinians. We stare this pain in the face. The oppression, the dispossession. It is hard-to-look-at material. But this is our material, and you have to face it, archive it, and show it.
HT: This is really amazing and actually beautiful to hear. It’s positive, even if hard.
ALH: It is very hard. We received an artwork on loan the other day for our next exhibition. The artist tells us the most heartbreaking story of its making. A story we never heard before. Cold cruelty. Still, you have to move on. You have to record the story, write it down, and hang it on the wall for people to see and make something out of it. It’s part of who we are.
Hanan Toukan is an assistant professor in politics and Middle East studies at Bard College Berlin.
Adila Laïdi-Hanieh is the director general of the Palestinian Museum.