Book review

From its first curator, a breathless, memorable account of the opening of the iconic Israel Museum

Karl Katz lived and breathed museums worldwide through a fruitful and distinguished career. But never to more abiding effect, as he shows in ‘The Exhibitionist,’ than in Jerusalem in the 1960s

A family visiting the Israel Museum's Shrine of the Book in 1965, when the iconic institution first opened. (Courtesy Israel Museum)
A family visiting the Israel Museum's Shrine of the Book in 1965, when the iconic institution first opened. (Courtesy Israel Museum)

When my children were young and my wife and I had the temerity to suggest going to a museum, whether it was in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, London or Paris, they would run for cover: The very idea of visiting a museum when they could be at the pool, in front of the television or basically doing anything else was positively anathema. My fondest memory of taking one daughter to the Louvre at the age of about six, was her standing on one of the underfloor vents that heated the building so that her skirt billowed above her waist, à la Marilyn Monroe. That was the only thing she really remembered from the visit.

Karl Katz probably never suffered such indignities. The self-described “Exhibitionist” in his autobiography of that name, worked in, created, lived and breathed museums through a long, varied, fruitful and distinguished career at some of the world’s leading institutions. I would have called him a museologist rather than an exhibitionist, especially as in that double entendre the writer might be accused of showing off. But that is manifestly not the case in this book. Katz breathes life into his subject, but his own creative role, which was so often critical in his work, is modest and never overstated.

Karl Katz started out as an archaeologist and among other sites worked at the excavations in the Caesarea port and the Philistine city of Gath. He writes that on his way to Israel for his first archaeological season, he dropped in to Lillywhites, the sports goods store in London, to buy the essentials: “boots, khakis, a hat with a peak, and shirts with at least 12 pockets.” I was inevitably reminded of William Boot in Evelyn Waugh’s “Scoop” who before his first foreign assignment bought himself cleft sticks for sending his dispatches.

But Katz’s life trajectory, without cleft sticks, took him into the field of museums, paramount among them being the Metropolitan Museum, New York, where he was chairman of Exhibitions and Loans for 20 years from 1971. Other museums which he initiated or worked at were the International Center of Photography, New York; Tel Aviv’s Beit Hatfutsot (the Diaspora Museum) and, of paramount interest to the Israeli reader, the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. It is this account that I found particularly riveting.

'The Exhibitionist' by Karl Katz (The Overlook Press)
‘The Exhibitionist’ by Karl Katz (The Overlook Press)

Katz, the founding curator of the Israel Museum, had his first introduction to Israel’s museums when he visited the Bezalel Museum in 1950 and subsequently took over as director when Mordechai Narkiss, its long-time director, died of cancer in 1957. The Bezalel Academy of Arts had been founded in 1906 by a Bulgarian sculptor, Boris Schatz, and the museum grew out of it with an eclectic collection of paintings, sculpture, ethnic arts and crafts, coins, carpets and textiles, all of which eventually became one of the constituent parts of the nascent Israel Museum.

Katz takes us on a roller-coaster ride through the frenetic preparations – fund-raising, collecting art works, mollifying and cajoling donors and artists – for the museum. It opened its doors to the public in 1965 and is today among the most widely visited sites in Israel, on a par with the Western Wall, Masada and Yad Vashem.

Anecdotes and personal vignettes abound about some of the dramatis personae involved: the curators – Elisheva Cohen, Ayala Gordon and Yona Fischer – and other pivotal figures such as Ralph Goldman, Willem Sandberg, Yigael Yadin, Billy Rose, Isamu Noguchi, and above all, Teddy Kollek, at the time the director-general of the Prime Minister’s Office of David Ben-Gurion. The museum was the brainchild and dream of Kollek, the legendary mayor and builder of Jerusalem, and it was Kollek who invited Katz to join the planning team for the new museum on a hilltop above the Monastery of the Cross and opposite another hill where the Knesset would be inaugurated a year after the museum.

The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, circa 1965 Courtesy: Estate of Rolf Kneller)
The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, circa 1965 Courtesy: Estate of Rolf Kneller)

This reviewer can contribute a small anecdote that Katz does not mention.

Former Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek GPO)
Former Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek GPO)

In his exciting account of the days before the opening of the museum, he laconically writes “…and the catalogues finally arrived at the Museum.” What he doesn’t say is that about a month prior to the opening, Teddy Kollek had made a frantic phone call to Yitzhak Levy, who was director-general of the Israel Program for Scientific Translations, another branch of the Prime Minister’s Office (which subsequently became the Keter Publishing House). IPST was a world leader in scientific translations into English and as such, had a large staff of English professional editors. Teddy was in a panic and the problem was acute: the museum was a few weeks before opening, and not one of the planned catalogues was ready.

To cut a long story short, every professional at IPST was drafted. All other work was suspended and we (yes: this writer was one of them) took over a round-the-clock translating, writing, editing, proofreading and printing assignment. The last of the catalogs was duly delivered to the museum on the morning of the opening.

Karl Katz (Courtesy)
Karl Katz (Courtesy)

Apart from its insights and fascinating stories about the museum scene in America, the book also has a somewhat clandestine aspect to it, when Katz embarked on an eight-month study trip to Egypt – which was no small undertaking at the time for a Jew and a regular visitor to Israel – and on later professional visits to Turkey and Iran. But above all, the book is an absorbing account of a crucial and defining period in Israel’s cultural life.

The jacket blurb suggests that this is a ”book for art critics, designers of museums, collectors, curators, administrators and students.” However, this does the book a disservice. While it is indeed for all of those, it is much more: The book will have a wide appeal to anyone interested in the development and history of Israeli culture.

The 1965 opening of the Israel Museum, Teddy Kollek seated sixth from right (Courtesy Israel Museum)
The 1965 opening of the Israel Museum, Teddy Kollek seated fifth from right (Courtesy Israel Museum)

The book has the occasional linguistic idiosyncrasy: For some reason, Katz talks about the Yeccas – referring to the many German-born and educated cultural leaders of Israel at the time – but the word is Yekke, deriving from the supposedly universally worn “Jacke” (jackets) of the new German immigrants.

Of far more consequence are the 30 or so photographs which are included. This book should be a quintessential example of the visual arts – after all, that is what museums are basically all about. And yet the reproduction of the pictures is a disaster. Most of them are muddy, often to the point of obscurity. For an insignificant additional cost, the publisher could have grouped them together and printed them on high-quality art stock. It is a pity that the Overlook Press seems to have overlooked this.

But the photographs apart, this book is a real contribution to understanding the role of museums and especially in appreciating the curators, administrators and professional staffs, often behind the scenes, who make the wheels go round. For Israelis especially, it shines a bright light on the beginnings of some of the iconic institutions on our public cultural scene that can, all too easily, be taken for granted.

“The Exhibitionist” by Karl Katz

The Overlook Press, New York, 2016

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