With More Room for Its Past, the Israel Museum Looks Forward

When the Israel Museum announced plans for a proposed expansion five years ago, everyone expected the board to select a star architect. After all, money seemed to be no object for an institution that counted among its supporters some of the richest people in the world, many of them based in America. Instead they opted for a little-known architectural team led by James Carpenter Design Associates of New York and Efrat-Kowalsky Architects of Tel Aviv.

The inauguration of the museum's renewed and expanded 20-acre campus on July 26th offers a powerful testament to the wisdom of that decision. Rather than seeking to impose a new vision on the site, a hilltop promontory adjacent to official Israeli state institutions just west of old Jerusalem, the architects have produced a simple but effective expansion and reorientation of the existing buildings that greatly improves and augments the museum-going experience.

The most visible aspect of the $100 million renewal is a new visitor center made of glass and housed within a louvered terracotta enclosure. The center nicely orients newcomers to the museum but also offers access to a sleek underground passage into the institution's original buildings, a collection of modular modernist pods designed in the mid-1960s by Alfred Mansfeld and until now accessible only via a long, inclined concrete causeway exposed to the sun and rain.

The underground passage brings visitors into the bottom level of a new three-story, open-plan entrance pavilion, providing centralized access to the museum's three core-collection wings (dedicated to archaeology, the fine arts, and Jewish art and life) and new temporary exhibition galleries. Through the expansion project's combination of construction and renovation, the museum's gallery space has been doubled from 100,000 to roughly 200,000 square feet.

Unlike many museum expansion projects, the goal was not to get more of the collection out of storage and on view. In fact, the re-installation of its encyclopedic collections has meant an overall decrease of about one-third in the total number of objects on display, from over 12,000 to about 8,500. Quality, not quantity, is the guiding curatorial principle, especially in the once-cluttered archaeological rooms where the number of artifacts on view has been cut almost in half.

Reordering of the museum's content makes a more enjoyable and focused viewing experience. It also means visitors can now experience close to 20,000 years of material culture under one roof, ranging from prehistorical archaeological remains to Pre-Columbian and African sculpture, modern design and architecture, and even contemporary art. Ten percent of the gallery space is now devoted to contemporary art, which occupies the entire top floor of the original building.

Outdoors, an army of laborers continues to work on integrating the landscape and architecture, one of several key elements of the project which remained unfinished less than a week before the official opening. But none of this really matters, for the museum has managed to preserve the essence of its original vision as the preeminent encyclopedic museum in the region while also pivoting towards the future. It is one of the most inspired museum expansions in decades.