Israel Museum enters new phase with new director Denis Weil

Nation’s largest cultural institution looks to reach new audiences including Arab and Haredi communities, create new programming and develop new tech

Jessica Steinberg, The Times of Israel's culture and lifestyles editor, covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center

Denis Weil, director of the Israel Museum, one year after taking on the job in March 2022, in the sculpture garden he remembers visiting as a 10-year-old (Courtesy Elie Posner)
Denis Weil, director of the Israel Museum, one year after taking on the job in March 2022, in the sculpture garden he remembers visiting as a 10-year-old (Courtesy Elie Posner)

It’s been one year since Swiss-born Israel Museum director Denis Weil started his new job, moving to Israel from Chicago to head one of Israel’s largest cultural institutions.

Weil has been visiting the Jerusalem campus since he was 10 years old, especially the museum’s famed sculpture garden designed by Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi.

“It made an incredible impression,” said Weil in his Israel Museum office some 50 years later. “I still have the images somewhere in my head.”

That was back in the museum’s first phase, as Weil likes to say.

Israel’s largest museum is now entering its fourth phase, explained Weil. It spent the first 20 years gathering its collection, the second two decades developing its curatorial staff and the third phase under the care of former director James Snyder, when that renowned museum director spent 20 years ushering the museum onto the international stage.

Now, said Weil, it’s time to spread the museum’s wings and bring its collection to the farther reaches of Israel and the world, with more educational and cultural activities.

The Israel Museum in Jerusalem, on November 5, 2018 (Mendy Hechtman/Flash90)

“It’s still the preeminent cultural institution in Israel,” said Weil. “The changes need to be evolutionary, and need to be done in a way to honor and build on the DNA of the organization. And you find the DNA by actually looking back on the eras that built the museum.”

This kind of thinking may well be why the museum board chose Weil, a professor of design whose specialty is helping legacy organizations — particularly those that are possibly losing their relevance — find their next life cycle.

The Israel Museum is also an institution that Weil has been connected to for much of his life. Weil’s parents, Ernst and Jacqueline Weil, were the founders of the Swiss chapter of the Friends of the Israel Museum. His brother, Philippe Weil, a Swiss banker living in Tel Aviv, used to be chair of the Israeli Friends of the Israel Museum.

He recalls that when he visited the museum as a child, it felt very different from the European museums he was accustomed to — “powerhouse structure pavilions that make you feel small and quiet,” he said.

He also remembers being taken aback that there could be Jewish art exhibited in a museum.

The Synagogue Route at the Israel Museum, which has reconstructed synagogues in the Jewish Art and Life Wing (Courtesy Israel Museum)

“I was completely surprised and confused, because there was no Jewish museum or department in Switzerland. So that was also a very interesting, incredible thing,” said Weil.

“I care about the museum, and I’ve been part of it for a long time.”

He shares this with the late long-term Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek, who pushed to establish the museum.

The museum’s sprawling campus was under construction and Kollek was extremely concerned about having a huge building with a small collection, told Weil. So he traveled around the world and “went to old Jewish collectors,” telling them to put the museum in their will or to donate artworks, which he often brought home in his suitcase.

“He took it with him on the plane back,” said Weil. “The reason we have such an amazing Impressionist collection is because Jewish collectors collected Impressionist art back then. So that was the first year, and that collection led to the fact that we now have 500,000 pieces.”

Now the museum contains most of the country’s cultural treasures, which are loaned to dozens of museums each year and to international ones as well.

“Here in Israel, we really enable smaller museums to create exhibitions,” said Weil.

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)

It’s a salient point for Weil, who thinks a lot about access to art and engagement with it. He wants to get the museum’s art collection out of storage and into other locations, particularly Israel’s periphery and its Arab and ultra-Orthodox populations who are underrepresented in museum visits.

The museum recently held a multi-session learning program in the central town Lod with Arabic-speaking and Hebrew-speaking students. Now Weil wants to take that curriculum out to other partners in the north and south who can run the museum’s courses.

Also under discussion is the creation of a mobile museum with smaller exhibits that can travel around the country.

This adds up to a shift away from focusing solely on exhibitions, said Weil.

“Museums were too obsessed with exhibitions and are now thinking more in terms of programming,” said Weil, who counts among the museum’s visitors those who see its traveling shows, its loans to other museums, and its in-person and digital events as well.

Frame from the Israel Museum’s Virtual Reality tour ‘Back to Aleppo: A Virtual-Reality Tour of the Great Synagogue’ that is based on 75-year-old still photographs. (Courtesy: Israel Museum)

Prior to joining the museum, Weil was dean and professor of design at the Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago.

With master’s degrees in chemical engineering and design strategy, he has worked at Bloomberg Philanthropies, Year Up and Sanergy as well as in innovation design and digital technology at McDonald’s and Procter and Gamble among other companies.

Coming to the museum was a passion-driven move, said Weil, who moved to Jerusalem in order to do so.

He sees leading the museum and its staff of 45 curators — whom he calls “an incredible powerhouse” — as his next adventure, aiming to bring the world to Israel and the culture of Israel and the Jewish people to the world.

“Israel needs that, because you can’t leave this country without going to an airport,” he said. “I think with growing antisemitism, that’s an important factor, and it’s something we provide and have provided for 58 years.”

He also wants the institution to be an incubator for museum technology.

“I think the biggest objective of a digital museum is actually to provide context to the object,” said Weil.

There are other challenges as well; the museum, a public benefit corporation (14% of the museum belongs to the government) depends heavily on philanthropy.

“The current generation, it’s all strategic philanthropy,” said Weil. “So they will want to give to a specific project with clear impact statements, or it needs to be a new project and they have more association to a cause. So this is a real shift that we need to deal with, by also broadening our reach.”

The shift is fine with Weil: The museum has been doing this for its 58 years. It’s just another phase.

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