As other local museums have slowly opened their doors following the first wave of the coronavirus, Jerusalem’s Israel Museum is carefully planning its reopening for the near future.
“We’re looking at the long-term well-being of the museum,” said director Ido Bruno.
A month ago, said Bruno, he still had no idea how the museum would move ahead in the wake of the coronavirus crisis.
Now, however, he has a firm commitment from the finance and culture ministries for the annual grant usually given to the museum, and a one-time coronavirus grant being given to cultural institutions and museums in particular, taking into account the particular fragility of the institutions that rely heavily on visitor entries, events and ticketing, as well as on donations.
“We did a lot of work with the Finance Ministry on this grant, because the Israel Museum relies on private donations and even those won’t solve the whole issue,” said Bruno.
The museum was also granted a safety net by The American Friends of the Israel Museum: A future, one-time grant for the museum in case it runs into financial trouble in the future, which is what Bruno fears.
“Tourism will partially come back, and the emergency government support may not happen then, and maybe Israeli visitors won’t fully come back, and staff will be back on the payroll and then we can really fall off the cliff,” said Bruno. “The safety net [means] they’ll back us after we utilize all sources of income and support.”
Of the museum’s 400 staff members and the additional 400 volunteers, about 50 are currently working. Most of the museum’s curator staff is on furlough, and exhibits aren’t being planned yet, said Bruno.
According to a staff member at the museum who wished to remain anonymous, most of the museum staff has been furloughed since March through June 30. The 50 staff members who were considered essential have remained with full salary and hours.
All of the museum staff was told there would be a gradual return to work by September, and were asked to take paycuts and shorten hours, said the staff member.
Over the last few months, said Bruno, it’s become clear that the timeline for returning to any kind of normal museum routine will take from one-and-a-half to over two years.
“Maybe we’ll get to a normal that will clearly be different, with tourists and visitors, at the end of 2022,” said Bruno. “We’ll have to absorb the economic and health bumps along the way.”
For the museum, as for so many cultural institutions, the coronavirus shutdown in March was immediate, but the prospect of recovery is much more hazy, said Bruno.
“There’s all the ups and downs of the waves,” he said. “There’s the psychological effect on people to stay home and not go anywhere.”
While the Israel Museum counts itself among Israeli museums, there are no parallel institutions of a similar size in Israel. The museum had 921,000 visitors in 2019, 420,000 of whom were tourists.
As part of the months-long process of figuring out how to emerge from the coronavirus crisis, Bruno said he listened to the plans of fellow museum directors.
The director of a design museum in Copenhagen decided not to open until January 2022, while other major museums were reeling over the changes wrought by their substantial philanthropic donors.
“Donors are thinking about health and welfare, not so much about museums,” he said.
While the museum has secured its emergency funding, it isn’t releasing its opening dates yet, although Bruno hopes it will be during the 2020 summer season.
“We want to open our gates, but we have a big, heavy responsibility to the public,” he said.
In the meantime, the museum has used the last months to invest in several infrastructure projects, including telecommunications systems and a deep cleaning of the Shrine of the Book, the wing of the Israel Museum that houses the Dead Sea Scrolls, which is hard to access for significant upkeep.
The museum has also successfully used its website, offering virtual tours and talks, creating an Israel Museum page on digital app TikTok and working on the Arabic translation of the museum’s site, as well as a Facebook page in Arabic and more virtual activities in the language.
“We have to be very careful,” said Bruno. “We won’t open until we can deal with the entire situation, including what will happen in the two years ahead.”