To boost visits, Israel’s museums must change with the times

The country’s top cultural institutions look to stay relevant through night concerts, wine-tasting events and cool apps

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Dancing on the plaza of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art during one of the museum's many open-to-the-public evenings (Tomer Neuberg/Flash 90)
Dancing on the plaza of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art during one of the museum's many open-to-the-public evenings (Tomer Neuberg/Flash 90)

It was 10 p.m. on a weekday night in June, and Eilat Lieber, director of Jerusalem’s Tower of David Museum, called in her staff and told them not to leave the premises and be prepared for a potentially long night ahead.

Why? Rapper Kanye West, in town with his wife, reality star Kim Kardashian and baby daughter North West, had offered to do an impromptu concert at the musuem. To the disappointment of the staff, West decided at the last minute not to perform, tired from a long day of touring Israel. But Lieber and team would have been ready to pull it off.

The Tower of David Museum, a collection of forts, courtyards, tunnels and meandering rooms from ancient times, offers a broad history of Jerusalem. It also serves as a popular performance spot for musical festivals, sometimes going all night or at sunrise, as singers and bands set up stage on the citadel’s massive stone ledges.

“We have a museum with so many elements, and our job is to utilize all of it,” said Lieber. “It should always be the place it’s supposed to be.”

Although Kanye West didn’t perform in the end at the Tower of David (he is due to give a concert in Tel Aviv in October), Jewish reggae star Matisyahu did one late Friday afternoon in early September as part of the Sacred Music Festival.

American Jewish singer Matisyahu performs at the Sacred Music Festival in the Old City of Jerusalem, September 4, 2015. (Eric Cortellessa)
American Jewish singer Matisyahu performs at the Sacred Music Festival in the Old City of Jerusalem, September 4, 2015. (Eric Cortellessa)

Lieber is determined to bring in a diverse crowd. There are plenty of older visitors lining up for the museum’s Old City tours that often accompany a new exhibit. And there’s always school trips that come to make Crusader-era helmets in the olive-tree shaded courtyard. But it’s the more unusual events that bring a different kind of visitor to the museum — from the successful Chihuly glass exhibit in 1999, which showcased 10,000 pieces of glass sculpture, to the current exhibit, Objective, which displays the work of two designers who use the city of Jerusalem as part of their art.

“We bring people in throughout the calendar year,” Lieber said “There’s music and performances for the younger crowd on Purim and Yom Ha’atzmaut [Independence Day], tours on Friday mornings for the older crowd. Our concept is to mix it up and never stop trying new things.”

More than a painting on the wall

There’s a certain amount of effort required in making a cultural institution accessible for concerts, wine tasting and late-night parties. But whatever the purpose, it appears that it’s worth the effort. What differs among museums, however, is why and what they choose to bring the outer world into the stately rooms of their institution.

“The events don’t bring money, that’s not why. And it’s not for expanding our audience,” said Zach Granit, deputy director of the Israel Museum. “We see ourselves as a center of culture, and while the main draw is the exhibits, we can’t ignore the fact that museums do a lot of things, more than what they did in 1965.”

A dance party on the grounds of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art last December (Tomer Neuberg/Flash 90)
A dance party on the grounds of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art last December (Tomer Neuberg/Flash 90)

For the Israel Museum, the country’s preeminent national cultural institution, that can mean a wide range of performance alternatives. There are regular lecture series, theater productions for kids and tours of new exhibits. Over the last year, there were also dance performances as part of the “Out of the Circle” exhibit, opera in the galleries accompanied by singer Achinoam Nini and a Chava Alberstein performance, among others, for “1965 Today,” part of the museum’s 50th anniversary celebrations.

Achinoam Nini, March 2, 2009 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Achinoam Nini, March 2, 2009 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“There’s a deep transition in the arts, it’s happening everywhere,” said Granit. “The walls that were up in the galleries are disappearing and being taken down. You see it in the performance art and video art in the exhibits. It’s a process happening in the last decade, and we can’t ignore it. It’s really a lovely thing; no one deals in just their art or discipline. They speak and we need to give it expression.”

He pointed out the concert given by Alberstein in May, a doyenne of Israel’s music scene in the 1960s, part of a concert series organized to accompany 1965 Today.

“If we do an exhibit about 1965, and Chava Alberstein appeared that year, we apply it to many aspects of the exhibit, to a video, to her music,” he said. “There’s nothing more natural than that.”

Still, much of the Israel Museum’s expanded events began when the museum underwent a massive renovation in 2006, creating new spaces and opportunities, said Granit. And with an annual turnover of 800,000 to nearly one million visitors each year, and a NIS 120 million shekel (around $30 million) operating budget, it’s fairly easy for the museum to draw visitors.

Other museums don’t necessarily have the same numbers, and have no choice but to resort to other efforts.

Digging deep


The Tel Aviv Museum of Art does have deep pockets, said Dudi Peleg, who heads the institution’s special events department, but there’s no question that extracurricular events — whether hosting a premiere for a new television show, or a new play — bring in money and new audiences.

“They’re very different kinds of events,” said Peleg. “Renana Raz’s dance performances in the Youth Wing, for example, brings families who might not otherwise come, while the staging of a play in a small gallery is something we do in conjunction with local artists.”

At the Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv, the focus is also on “byproduct” events, said Miri Tzbaka, who handles public relations.

“I’ll have a conference on an exhibit, offer a tour, things that touch on the exhibit in question,” said Tzbaka.

As a multi-disciplinary museum, with a permanent collection of ancient coins and pottery alongside more contemporary shows about kites or textiles, the museum also organizes alternative events, and that often brings in new crowds, she said.

“We’re not like the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, which has their niche,” Tzabaka said. “I’m always looking for new audiences, and we cover a lot of material, so therefore we draw lots of different audiences,” she said.

She added that coming up with something more unusual — like a summer pajama party for kids during Tel Aviv’s summertime White Night — got a lot of new visitors into the museum’s galleries.

It’s the way of the modern museum, said Peleg. It’s a stage for all kinds of art, not just the kind that is hung on a wall or set on a pedestal.

“We welcome all of it,” he said. “And there’s no question that when we do all-night events during Tel Aviv’s White Night, we get the younger crowd that may not otherwise end up here.”

Ditto for the staging of play readings around a museum conference room table, or in another one of the Tel Aviv museum’s smaller galleries. There’s an intimacy that is engendered when guests are invited into the quieter, more secluded reaches of the museum, one that makes them feel part of what’s taking place around them, said Peleg.

Kid-friendly apps to beat ‘extreme’ boredom

Back in Jerusalem, in addition to the specialized tours and dawn performances, the Tower of David has invested heavily in technology, including a treasure hunt app created by computer scientists at the University of Haifa and launched last spring at the museum.

The museum wanted to find a way to draw the younger generation into its age-old rooms and courtyards, said Lieber.

“There’s a gap between the older generation, which still reads books and goes to museums and the generation of screen kids who want their information online,” she said. “They go out of the house less and don’t go to institutions like ours.”

The benefits of the Tower of David’s archaeological experience just didn’t appeal to kids, added Lieber.

“History and archaeology is, from the get-go, boring,” she said, laughing. “There’s a lot of information, and it feels like a punishment.”

The museum has added technology for years, from videos made to accompany an exhibit storyline to selfies taken against Jerusalem backdrops.

At the same time, the Tower of David is a fascinating space, full of stories about ancient knights and hidden crypts, completely adaptable with the right kinds of graphics and pressable buttons.

The museum didn’t have the budget for a commercial app company, and instead found a development group at the University of Haifa, where Professor Tzvika Kuflik was happy to meld his technology with the museum’s information, photos, archives and database.

Kuflik has spent the last several years creating a working treasure hunt program for museums. “It took that long to create a game that was easy to use, intuitive and attractive for a large swath of ages,” he said. “There’s a big emphasis on usability.”

What ultimately helped him was when the Tower of David came to see what he was working on him and partnered with him on the project.

“It doesn’t matter to us what kind of museum is interested,” he said. “And this is the direction of all museums, they have to get there. It offers a richness of material that can be supplied to the visitor.”

For the Tower of David, the decision to add more technology made sense, said Lieber.

“You have to be available to the visitor,” she said. “A visit to a museum is a choice that someone makes. The visitor learns and sees what she wants, at her pace, but we have the ability to change the info and make it more accessible.”

'Swipe the Citadel,' one of the new apps and games featured at the Tower of David Museum, which is looking to appeal to younger visitors (Courtesy Tower of David Museum)
‘Swipe the Citadel,’ one of the new apps and games featured at the Tower of David Museum, which is looking to appeal to younger visitors (Courtesy: Tower of David Museum)

In addition to the treasure hunt, there’s also AugmentiGuide, an augmented reality viewing of the view of the Old City from the museum; “Swipe the Citadel,” an interactive iPad adventure game in the citadel; and “Whose Tower is it?” a detective game around the citadel.

The variety of apps have worked well for the museum, said Lieber, bringing together those family groups who often show up at the museum, with the parents wanting one thing, and the kids claiming extreme boredom.

“It’s just the beginning, but we’re seeing the excitement in our audience,” she said. “It offers a nice balance of cooperation.”

The Israel Museum is planning a series of jazz concerts this winter, while the Tel Aviv Museum of Art has a series of lectures, encounters with artists and musical performances planned through December. The Tower of David Museum is hosting “Jerusalem.Passages,” an exhibit that is part of the Jerusalem Biennale of Contemporary Jewish Art into November, as well as its usual series of tours and activities, and the latest exhibit at the Eretz Israel Museum is “The Dancing Machine.”

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