While it's hard for me to believe each time I'm stuck at a poorly-designed traffic light or a bottleneck intersection, wondering where all those bright young Jewish engineers have gone, Israel stands at the technological frontier. The high-tech industry is a jewel in the country's economic crown (now tarnished a bit by some crisis going on, have you heard?), researchers developed voice mail for cell phones and ICQ (sort of like AIM outside of A) here, and everyday citizens have perfected the technology of transmitting a vulgar gesture while driving crappy boxy cars and talking on a cell phone ear piece here.
So perhaps it's not surprising that technology would transform tourism in Israel as well, and specifically their museum. This country possesses a chain of experiential museums; museums where, instead of walking around and reading information while taking in visual evidence through artifacts or artistic items, the visitor learns about the museum material by watching and listening to a video presentation, a film wrapped around the museum's thesis or message. It's like one of those classes where instead of lecturing about the New Deal, the teacher opts to show a film of FDR and his time.
The first time for me was, as first times often are, unexpected. I had no idea I was in for a whole new brand of museum. Unlike most first times, perhaps, my first time was with my brother, and it was in a small city along the Mediterranean coast, just north of Haifa, a city called Akko.
Akko, a.k.a. Acre, is known for its Fringe Theater Festival, its Crusader history, its mostly Arabic old city, and the mixed population of Arabs and Jews (these elements flared up in riots around Yom Kippur last year). When we went on a damp, cloudy Friday in early January, tempers and temperatures were low, and the port city felt raw and unwelcoming.
Our principal stop was the Turkish Bathhouse, reported by my guidebook to be one of the highlights of a visit to Akko. The book said something about a light show, and between that and my love of saunas, I thought it would be worthwhile. We had a hard time following the confusing signs in the old city were confusing, and we stumbled across the place more than we found it, but at some point a security guard standing beneath an arch pointed out the brown brick hallway we were to walk down and we found the front desk to the museum.
As it was the Friday after New Year's, a crappy day weather-wise, still relatively early, and soon to be Shabbat, it was perhaps not surprising that Mark and I were the only ones there. The man behind the desk offered us admission and handheld audio guides that were required for the exhibit. He then sent us through the open courtyard and to a door with a digital clock counting down in red numbers above it, and when that door automatically swung open, we entered.
In front of us was a gray, waterless fountain in the center, with gray columns on the outside of the room. The color of the walls was a brownish yellow, and pale transparent sheets hung before the walls, depicting typical scenes of a bathhouse. To our right was a big projector screen, and towards that the guard suggested our eyes should be trained. We each took seat in one of the many white plastic lawn chairs scattered about the room, held our audio guides to our ears, and did as suggested.
Soon a well-dressed middle-aged Arabic man stepped into the screen to greet us. While the screen character spoke in Hebrew (or maybe Arabic, I can't remember now), our guide started chirping in Arab-accented English. This was supposed to be the last bath attendant, or a descendant of that attendant, and he was to tell us the story of the bathhouses in Akko.
So far, things were more or less in order. Yes, the English sounded funny, and the speech was a little corny, full of knowing pauses and verbal winks, but there wasn't anything to make one feel strange. If anything, it was an interesting idea, to center a museum around a random epoch in Israel's history (as a location, not a country), and even more so around the main "other" in the country, i.e. the Arabs during the Ottoman Empire.
But then they went into a flashback scene. From the modern, well-dressed descendant we went to four Arabs from times past, gathered around a table in the bathhouse of the clouds, floating above us. They were all wider, older men, and as the voices switched to cover each of them in a different Arab-inflected English, they smoked the nargila and shot the proverbial breeze. Each told the other a tall tale about El Jazzar, the Pasha who built the baths at the end of the 18th century. They also busted on each other and muttered about the "sneaky Jews", in the way of all locker room conversations.
Fortunately for all involved, Mark and I were alone in the room, as I mentioned. This was fortunate because while even at the beginning we were giggling a little bit about the conceit of the museum (Mark is a notorious giggler after all, and it can be infectious), by the time we got to the "bathhouse" itself, the two of us lost it. Giggles turned continuous, laughter turned uproarious, chairs turned over as we fell to the floor, and the whole thing seemed ridiculous.
This was the general gist of the museum. There was one other room, where the actual sauna was supposed to be. Amidst statues of bathers and another video screen, we felt no more serious than before. The big change was that the voice did not only come from the screen, but also from a statue sitting on a beheaded column, his lips moving by holographic projection. This, needless to say, sent us further atwitter.
I didn't realize then that we were experiencing the cusp of a trend. The whole museum exhibit took just over a half hour, and when we finished, we chalked it up to a pleasantly silly diversion that we probably wouldn't spend money on again. Then we walked along the coast and Mark talked me out of buying something and that was that.
A month later my Hebrew teacher, a colleague at the school, asked me to help chaperone the school Hebrew trip to Jerusalem. At first the plan was to go to the Knesset, which would have potentially been fascinating, considering it would have been two days after the elections. And so it also wasn't surprising that the authorities didn't let us go there.
Option #2 centered on the Jerusalem Time Elevator. Located in the Beit Agron building near the center, the Time Elevator takes the interaction a step further, putting it into a ride jam-packed with excitement. Or something.
Our wise-mouthed British locals bragged about how they had been on the ride three or four times already as we filed into the room, 60 of us in all. I sat with my colleagues, grizzled Israeli natives who nevertheless looked forward to the ride. On the walls there were fake old-fashioned hearths and Roman numerals, and on one side of the screen a timeline went up from 1000 BCE to the present-day. A lady in modern tour-guide uniform came on screen, welcoming us to the elevator and preparing us for the journey, as the room shook ominously. The time elevator was doomed to fall out of its groove, and we to plunge into history. And then the main guy from Fiddler on the Roof came on the screen.
He was dressed in rags and quite old, meant to represent a Jerusalem native cursed to live forever in Jerusalem and to tell people about it in this little film. So he took us through David's founding of the city, the Babylonian exile, the return, the Roman exile, the arrival of the Ottomans, and then the reemergence of a Jewish state. All this came with our seat shaking and at one point, a spray of water from the ceiling upon us. The information presented was analogous to what I saw at the Tower of David museum in the Old City of Jerusalem, if a little abridged, but the entertainment and goofy factors were off the charts.
And yet I didn't realize the common thread tying all these museums together until later that day. We drove up to Mt. Herzl on one of the outer neighborhoods of Jerusalem (and Jerusalem, like few cities I've seen, is a city of neighborhoods, confusing to drive through and weirdly disjointed as you go from north to south or from the Old City up to the hills). The mountain featured a park and the graves of a few famous figures, including Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism himself (and here I was thinking Herzliya was just a funny name for the town I lived in). But we were not to go walking around the mountain, visiting the graves: we had another museum in store, and another historical experience to live.
The schtick at the Herzl museum was as follows: we entered a room meant to model fin de siecle Vienna. On the screen, a young, attractive-looking Israeli actor (very European though) prepares to audition for the role of Herzl in some play. He expresses ignorance about the man, and the full-bearded wide-bodied director suggests that the actor do some brushing up on the founder. They bring in a Herzl expert - a woman whose age falls right in between the 50-something director and the young 30's actor - to advise the actor on the role. Sexual tension and light humor introduced into the plot, the museum takes us through Herzl's Zionist career (1897, sparked by the Dreyfuss Affair, to 1904, when he died) and puts the state of Israel in its historical background, while the rooms we go through are modeled after Herzl's room, a speaking hall, and a Zionist congress. By the time they get to the big clip show about the history of Israel, and whether or not it lived up to Herzl's vision, the whole thing iskind of hopeful and balanced at the same time. In fact, they concede that Herzl saw this as a more egalitarian society, a place where Arabs and Jews would be equal and safe. Utopianistic, surely, but pleasant to keep in mind.
In fact, that's what makes these experiential museums so interesting beyond the gimmickry. For example, I generally prefer reading to watching, whether it's books to movies or the Tower of David museum to the Timeline elevator. But when well done, these types of museums provoke emotions and a greater connection to the material at hand, along with providing a historical education.
Which is also what makes these museums a little bit dangerous. In Israel, a place where everything is political, it's easy to look twice at just about any statement or historical point. So when a "museum" talks about the history of Jerusalem, or the development of Zionism, there's a lot of room to be subjective. If a museum has a certain thesis that isn't wholly declared, it becomes much easier for that message to sink into the visitors' mindsets, as the connection drives the point further home.
The Herzl museum was fairly balanced, I thought. They tried to point out that the Jewish State hasn't been a perfect creation, and that Herzl would not be completely pleased with what Israel has become in 2009 (and mind you, this was pre-right wing government). At the same time, they pointed out the incredible positive changes that this land has undergone in the past 60-100 years, and suggested that Jews and Israelis (and Herzl behind them) have much to feel proud about.
This is mostly a neutral message, a sort of benevolent nationalism, and while those dialectically opposed to the Jewish state or those critical about how the country has conducted themselves in their history might find a lot at fault with that, a neutral clear-headed observer might find a mostly even-handed presentation that raised questions and interesting points. This is the sort of museum that would suit peace-loving Zionists in Israel, which suits Herzl's legacy as I understand it.
It's important to consider, however, that among those groups attending the museum before or after us were groups of soldiers. Israelis a few years younger than me (and even closer in age to our high schoolers) stood in regimented lines and prepared to learn about their history through this experiential fashion. Certainly, this is a more effective way to teach and to push a message across than sending them to a standard, cut-and-dried museum. It's that question about whether it's right to push across a message in a museum, and how hard messages are to keep historical, that I'm asking.
The question becomes even more pertinent at the Palmach museum in Tel Aviv. The Palmach was one of the main Israeli fighting forces before Israel existed. The British established the Jewish units during WWII to fight the Germans if they invaded the British-held territory, but once that threat was subsumed in 1942, the Palmach evolved into an underground force obsessed with paving the way for a Jewish state. If the Herzl Museum tells the story of the ideological underpinnings to the Jewish state and how they came to be, the Palmach talks about the dirty work that made Israel a country.
I attended the museum a week ago amongst a pack of Australian kids my age or perhaps a little younger. They were in a big group from Masa, an organization that offers programs in Israel to young Jews around the world, to offer them opportunity but also presumably to indocrinate a sense of Jewish pride and an identification with Israel. The kids were loud and rambunctious, and it seemed that a museum could hardly hold them.
An Israeli soldier managed to grab their attention while giving the introduction to the museum. She called out one of the kids, saying, "Purple sweater, you're really annoying," to a girl in the group. Still, in the first room in the museum, somebody from the group was making animals with their hands against the light, so they had an irreverent attitude at the outset, to say the least.
The museum also took a different approach to the translation issues posed by an English-speaking group. Whereas the Herzl museum overdubbed every part in English and played the sound through the stereo system, and the Akko museum did the same overdubbing but played them through headsets, the Palmach museum played through headsets and didn't overdub everything. The screen introduced about ten characters that made up a Palmach unit, yet instead of offering a voice for each of them in English, the display only gave us a narrator who indirectly covered everything they said, either through quotation or through summary. Only when it was completely unavoidable, as when a character was reading a letter, did they allow for a "character's" voice to speak.
Maybe the Palmach was the first experiential museum and so those behind it hadn't mastered the formula, but this weak translation limited the effectiveness of the presentation. All the humor, cheesy as it probably was, bled out of the process, and it was harder to connect with characters when they were largely indistinguishable. (They did have the moving lipped statue trick though, which drew laughs).
And yet, by the time they got to the final fighting that marked the 1948 Arab-Israeli War and the founding of the state, where the wise-cracking nerdy lieutenant to the main commander begs to go into battle in the Negev and then dies, the presentation hit its mark. Emotions were stirred, connection was made, and all those Aussies were silent as they watched.
But then there's that nagging question. You find out in the museum that the Palmach bombed every bridge connecting Israel to another country in 1946. You hear about the fighting between Jews and Arabs who lived together. You learn about the struggle and the cost and the lives lost. But you hear about this all from the Israeli side.
There is no balance at the Palmach the way there is at the Herzl Museum. And the Palmach's topic is much more controversial on its own. The exhibit then leads a visitor to two likely sets of responses (assuming that they would be the type of visitor that would actually go to the Palmach museum - Hamas members are unlikely to have either of these reactions): the first would be a conscious empathy with the story and the characters they've seen, leading the visitor to a stronger understanding of the history behind the state and hence, subconsciously, a stronger connection with Israel. I may be patronizing in suggesting that the Aussies fell into this category, but I will suggest it ne'ertheless.
The other reaction would be to wonder where the distinctions are drawn in these identities and these namings. Is the bombing of every bridge connecting pre-state Palestine to the countries around it an act of war, an act of liberation, a guerilla tactic, or even a terrorist move? Is the victory over fleeing refugees and hated rivals something to be proud of or something to consider deeply? I'm not trying to jump on Israel and, if I fell on the Israeli political spectrum, it would probably be as a Herzl nationalist type, but watching that history unfold on the screen from room to room leads to either subconscious agreement (since after all, the Palmach soldiers were presented as good guys, and did "win") or substantial questioning.
None of this is meant to imply that somehow the technology or idea of experiential museums was developed in Israel as a way to propogate propaganda. Or that other museums don't exist in Israel, more straightforward exhibits indoors (Tel Aviv Art Museum, Tower of David Museum, Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv, Massua near our school, for examples) or set in Israel's natural beauty (Masada is the most obvious example).
It's just that as we propel forward into a bolder, more technological world, the new opportunities that the technology offers are also new opportunities to be misused in some way. Some are more obvious, like mind-reading or students screwing around on facebook on their laptops in class, and others are not quite so obvious, like these museums. This has always been true, of course, but as the technological advances come faster and faster, the questions, challenges, and temptations follow with them at an equally rapid pace. It's just something to watch out for, and it's another place where Israel is at the cutting edge. For better or for worse.