It’s taken six years to fully renovate Jerusalem’s Tower of David Museum, an ancient citadel adjacent to the Old City’s Jaffa Gate that dates back to the Mamluk and Ottoman periods.
A sneak peek ahead of the June 1 reopening proves it was worth the wait.
Now labeled as the capital’s official museum by city hall, the citadel offers a gateway into the Old City and fresh, clever ways to digest the historical material and lore that make up Jerusalem’s chronicles and traditions.
The $50 million renewal and conservation was led by Dame Vivien Duffield through the Clore Israel Foundation with the support of the Jerusalem municipality, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Jewish Tradition, the Ministry of Heritage, the Ministry of Tourism, the Patrick and Lina Drahi Foundation, Keren Hayesod, The Jerusalem Foundation, the American Friends of Museums in Israel and the P Austin Family Foundation.
Technology and original artifacts coexist easily in this new and improved version, offering visitors a deep dive into the timeline of the citadel, which dates back to Herod, the early Muslims and the Crusaders, all of whom used the fortress to safeguard the city while in power.
There are wildly imaginative animated films by Israeli animators, including Golden Globe winner Ari Folman and the renowned illustrator David Polonsky, along with interactive maps and a giant interactive globe, part of the creative digital media directed by Yoav Cohen.
The digital media shares space with ancient artifacts found in the citadel that have never been displayed before. Part of the renovation included new excavations in different areas of the citadel, and a complex conservation program led by the Israel Antiquities Authority.
The museum is now almost entirely accessible, with the addition of two elevators, widened pathways and ramps carefully constructed for the archaeological site. Its walls and minaret have also been conserved, and the museum was redesigned to become part of the city and urban landscape, instead of a self-enclosed fortress.
The museum is entered from a new covered entrance pavilion directly across from Jaffa Gate, complete with ticket office and a cafe (not yet open) that leads into the first gallery, with 12 interactive screens that break down the citadel’s history into its various time periods.
The timeline, “Sands of Time,” is one of director Eilat Lieber’s favorite new additions, with multiple ways of understanding each period in Jerusalem’s history by simply touching a screen. “It’s big, beautiful, deep and interesting,” said Lieber.
While the interactive screens (and interactive globe) could occupy a visitor for a good hour, it’s also the site of a short animated film by Ari Folman (“Waltz with Bashir,” “Where is Anne Frank”).
With clever imagery, Folman uses one of the ancient stone walls as his screen, illustrating the chapters of Jerusalem’s rulers in a five-minute film.
I could have watched it several times over.
It’s not the only piece of clever animation; artist Dov Abramson’s animated works are installed in an upper-floor gallery, and screened on glass through which the stone walls are still visible.
David Polonsky, also of “Waltz with Bashir” fame (as well as the Ninth of Av animated film “Legend of Destruction”) took over the vaulted ceiling in another upstairs gallery, using every nook and cranny for his wildly gripping seven-minute film about Jerusalem’s holiday cycle, including every religion and season.
The audio is provided by musician Amit Hai Cohen, who recorded authentic sounds including a Greek Orthodox Palm Sunday march, observant Jews waving citron and myrtle on Sukkot, the patter of winter rains and the city’s traffic jams.
The museum’s sharp focus on technology is balanced by a deep dive into its collections. But first it had to locate its own artifacts.
Lieber, who has been museum director since 2012, had long been told that most of the museum’s artifacts were destroyed in a fire. She went on a search-and-find mission to a storeroom in Beit Shemesh where some unidentified boxes contained a treasure trove of museum objects.
“The real objects tell the story,” said Lieber, pointing out the ancient seals, Crusader-era daggers and other items sparingly displayed throughout several galleries, alongside the digital media.
Another upper gallery contains the completely restored Illés model of Jerusalem map, made for the 1873 Vienna World Fair, that painstakingly details the topography of the city with copper wire trees and zinc-modeled buildings.
It too was discovered somewhat by chance in the 1980s, by a pair of Hebrew University students, in the attic of the Geneva University Library.
The mix of old and new continues throughout the 20,000 square meters of expanded museum exhibition space curated by Tal Kabo, with films by Yair Moss that meld the ancient and new city, and the final gallery with three documentary films by Ben Shani from “Uvda,” Keshet’s investigative television series, made using archival footage.
“We put the citadel on a pedestal,” said designer Tal Roih de Lange, who aimed to keep the renovated architecture as clean as possible, despite the different sizes and proportions of each room in the citadel.
It was a big challenge in the 3,000-year-old site. Each gallery now has a lighter, airier feel, with newly uncovered windows that look out onto the streets of the Old City mixing the modern with the ancient.
There are no technology systems in sight, nary an exposed wire and even the lighting fixtures were kept small to allow for the volume of the space, said Roih de Lange.
“There has to be a balance of old and new,” said Roih de Lange. “This citadel was here before us and will be after us and we need to keep it as clean as possible,” down to the typeface used for the small amount of text, which has a modern look with a touch of ancient Jerusalem.
There will still be temporary exhibits created for the museum, with the first, by architect David Kroyanker about the architecture and streets of Jerusalem, shown in the exhibition space under the new entrance pavilion.
“The idea is to be able to renew the museum often,” said Lieber. “Whether it is a schoolchild from Israel or a visitor from overseas, I hope that the Tower of David can give them a basis for dialogue, tolerance and respect. These are the things that will make the world a better place and visitors from near and far will leave the museum with a better understanding of Jerusalem, this eternal city.”
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