The Natural History Museum in Jerusalem has been keeping an exhibit on human evolution covered under a sheet to avoid offending ultra-Orthodox visitors, and a staff member earlier this month asked a customer to leave when she inquired why the museum was censoring the display.
“I was saddened by it and rather shocked,” the visitor, Chaya David, told The Times of Israel following the incident. “It’s unwarranted and illegal.”
The Hebrew-language display, titled “The beginning of human evolution and culture,” details the stages of the gradual transformation from apes to the modern homo sapiens, complete with various skulls, models and ancient hunting tools along with written explanations.
It is kept under a pink sheet that blocks it from visitors’ view.
The museum said it had received approval from municipal authorities to hide the exhibit, along with two other displays on dinosaurs and on the human body and sexuality, during visits by ultra-Orthodox groups.
But on at least two occasions this month, the exhibit was covered even when there were no ultra-Orthodox visitors present.
The museum said the exhibit had been left covered after visits by ultra-Orthodox groups by mistake, due to a shortage of manpower.
The museum is located near the upscale German Colony neighborhood, not far from Jerusalem’s city center. Its outer garden attracts many visitors, but the indoor museum is old and the exhibits, many of which are neglected and no longer functional, haven’t been updated in many years.
Over its decades of existence, the museum said, it has replaced only 30 percent of its original exhibits, and the human evolution exhibit has remained unchanged.
The museum and its exhibits were funded by taxpayers’ money. The museum says it has continued operating for the last 25 years despite receiving no funds, relying solely on revenue garnered from visiting groups and by hosting various activities. The municipality has disputed this in previous media statements, claiming it still funds the museum.
An unacceptable theory
Many ultra-Orthodox Jews reject the scientific theory of evolution since, according to the Bible, humans were created separately from all other animals. According to the traditional reading of the Bible, the world was created 5,778 years ago, as opposed to the 13.8 billion years cited by modern science. Evolutionary science says human evolution occurred over hundreds of thousands of years.
Some ultra-Orthodox reject the existence of dinosaurs and generally do not teach their children about reproductive organs, and would thus consider exhibits on those topics, too, to be inappropriate.
But many Jews reconcile a belief in Torah with science by interpreting the biblical creation story in non-literal ways. Chaya David, the visitor who complained about the evolution exhibit being hidden, is herself an observant Jew.
The 31-year-old mother of two visited the museum during the Passover festival earlier this month with her three-year-old son.
After going through all the exhibits, her son saw a big illuminated box on the wall covered by a pink sheet, ran over and asked what was there. When she moved the sheet, the boy was excited to see the skulls.
“Why are they covering this? It’s totally inappropriate,” she said. “And then it dawned on me: I realized it was probably being covered due to some sort of social and political agenda.”
An employee that she asked told her that “Haredim don’t like to see these things,” David recollected.
“I was totally shocked because there weren’t any Haredim there to be offended. It wasn’t making anyone upset at the time,” she charged. “You can’t just choose one exhibit you think might offend someone and self-censor in that manner. It’s sad and unwarranted, and it’s also illegal.”
The employee then recommended that she leave.
When a Times of Israel reporter visited the museum almost a week later, the exhibit was still covered by the sheet.
The Natural History Museum said Thursday that it apologizes for the “inconvenience” caused to David. “We therefore invite her for an additional visit free of charge,” it said.
“The curtain is closed only when there is a Haredi group that reserves an activity ahead of time,” the museum said. “Due to shortage of manpower, the curtain was mistakenly not opened [afterward].
“The Natural History Museum has existed for 60 years and serves all populations in the city,” the museum added. “We are interested in attracting as many visitors as possible.”
The museum said it had received approval to temporarily cover up the exhibits on dinosaurs, human evolution and human body. The approval was based on a recommendation by the Jerusalem Haredi Education Division, a joint body that is part of both the Jerusalem Municipality and the Education Ministry. The division confirmed those details.
But David feels the museum was shooting itself in the foot.
“I think that when you self-censor unnecessarily, you draw lines that don’t really need to be drawn and you further separate demographics in the city that may not need to be separated along those lines,” she said. “This action is pushing more people away rather than making more people feel welcome.”