For Repeat Visitors, Try Niche Museums


If you go to Jerusalem often, it’s easy to convince yourself that you’ve seen it all. But there is always more to discover — always something engaging or enlightening that you haven’t yet visited.

You probably know the big museums, but it’s worth exploring the small niche museums that focus on a particular part of the story of Jerusalem or Israel.

The Museum on the Seam sits on the line between the predominantly-Jewish and predominantly-Arab parts of Jerusalem, and focuses on both the divisions and the common ground between the demographics. It calls itself a socio-political contemporary art museum, and its exhibitions deal with human rights, conflict and coexistence.

The main exhibition now focuses on the complex subject of political leadership — how people choose leaders, what people expect from their leaders, and how they judge their performance. The curators say that the exhibition, called “And The Trees Went Forth to Seek A King,” “coincides with a time of crisis in the local and global leadership; since the outburst of the Arab Spring, a bloody war is being waged in the Middle East over the shape of the ruling authorities.” They say that it comes at a time when leaders in several parts of the world face crises and “we face the danger of losing faith in the institutions of power.”

Geoff Winston, a program manager and tour guide at the educational tourism company Keshet, is often asked to come up with sites for the seasoned tourist. One of his top picks in the Old City is “Alone on the Walls,” a photographic exhibition that tells the story of the British withdrawal from the Jewish Quarter at the end of the British Mandate in 1948. A battle ensued between around 200 Jewish fighters and 1,500 Arab troops, and by its end Jewish residents were either expelled or taken. “Alone on the Walls” — a reference to the isolation of the Jews who tried to defend the area — displays photographs from this time by John Philips, a gutsy photojournalist.

“It’s a compelling exhibition because there’s an uplifting feeling when you come out of it,” says Winston. “The Jordanians said to the Jews that this is the last you’ll see of this part of Jerusalem — but we see today that this wasn’t the case.”

Several museums and exhibitions in Jerusalem are about the Zionist movement, but The Herzl Museum, often overlooked by tourists, offers a good overview of the life of Theodor Herzl, who is widely considered the father of modern Zionism. The bold Hungarian-born journalist died in 1904 at 44, and only promoted Zionism for the last decade of his life, but his contribution to the movement was enormous.

For much of the museum, you follow the fictional story of an actor who finds himself cast as Herzl but knows nothing about his life. Though initially the actor takes the arrogant attitude that all he needs is “a beard and a balcony,” you then see him find out all about Herzl, through audio-visual segments on various key moments in his life, including the Dreyfus Affair and his attempts to secure international support for his Zionist program.

The museum consists of four rooms, each one concentrating on a different part of Herzl’s life and legacy. In the third, Herzl’s study, which was transported from Europe and reconstructed in the museum, is on display.

A trip to the Herzl Museum is made interesting by the fact that the curators were careful not just to inform and educate, but also to give visitors food for thought — leaving questions hanging about how much of Herzl’s vision has been fulfilled and how much of it still needs to be brought about by Israelis and Diaspora Jews today. “The message is that a lot has been achieved but there are still issues that Israel is grappling with, on which there is a long way to go,” says Shlomit Sattler, the museum’s manager for international groups.

She adds: “The main strength of the museum is that people who arrive knowing nothing about Herzl will leave with a good understanding of his life and appreciation for what he achieved, while those who arrive knowing about him will leave with a new perspective and new insights about him.”