BIRZEIT, West Bank – Palestinians on Thursday began construction of the West Bank's largest museum devoted to their history, planning to tell diverse stories of Palestinians in their land and of millions who live abroad.
The museum represents a step in the Palestinian quest for statehood by creating a repository for 200 years of history, alongside galleries and space for debates about the Palestinian cause, said director Jack Persekian.
"I am hoping that this museum would be able to give the opportunity for many Palestinians to tell their stories. We are looking at a museum that doesn't have one particular narrative line that it wants to consecrate through its exhibits," he said.
The privately funded museum, which has government support, is the biggest such project the Palestinians have undertaken in terms of scale, space and budgets.
Persekian hoped the museum would tell stories not just of Palestinian Muslims and Christians, but also of Jews who lived in what was Britain-administered Palestine before Israel was founded in 1948.
"We would like to think about (the museum) in an inclusive way," he said.
The museum draws attention to the conflicting narratives at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
For Jews, the establishment of Israel reinforced the homecoming of an exiled people with ties to the Holy Land going back thousands of years. Palestinians refer to the establishment of Israel, and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who either fled or were driven from their homes, as their "nakba," or catastrophe.
Israel has dozens of museums with vast collections of biblical texts and artifacts connecting the Jewish people to the Holy Land. Palestinians have about 30 museums in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, the areas where they hope to establish a state, but nothing on the scale of the new project.
The $15 million first phase is scheduled to take two years to build and cover 3,000 square meters, or 32,000 square feet, of space. The planned glass and stone building was designed by the Dublin-based architectural firm Heneghan Peng, which is also building the new Egyptian national museum.
Dozens of Palestinian officials attended the laying of the museum's foundation stone on Thursday on a grassy hill near the Palestinian university town of Birzeit, with views of rocky hills, pines and olive groves. The site can be reached only over a bumpy road, and few residents appeared aware of the project.
Phase one will include a gallery, cafeteria, classrooms, a gift shop and staff offices. The museum's board plans to have the second phase built within a decade, expanding it to 9,000 square meters, or nearly 100,000 square feet. It is being overseen by the Welfare Association, a Palestinian aid and development group supported by philanthropists that has close ties to the governing Palestinian Authority.
The museum will focus on the past 200 years, from the Turkish-based Ottoman Empire through the British mandate over Palestine. It will cover Israel's creation in 1948 and the subsequent displacement of Palestinians during the war surrounding Israel's founding.
It will continue with the history of Palestinians abroad as well as their living conditions in the Gaza Strip, West Bank and east Jerusalem under Jordanian and Israeli control as well as the last 20 years of partial self-rule.
The organizers hope the museum will lead to partnerships in other territories where Palestinians live. There are refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, along with Palestinian communities in the West, particularly in Chile.
"We want to try to connect what is now a fragmented geography and a fragmented nation," Persekian said.
Although it's a private initiative, it fits into a series of institutions Palestinians are building in anticipation of statehood.
Palestinians have built other museums in the past few years, said Khaled Hourani, director of the International Academy of Art Palestine. He said the unrelated initiatives indicate a trend to establish spaces that could serve as interactive repositories for Palestinian art, artifacts and the stories of the aging generation of Palestinians who endured the 1948 displacement.
There's a museum dedicated to Palestinian national poet Mahmoud Darwish and another under construction for the late leader Yasser Arafat. In Gaza, two museums display artifacts from the territory's thousands of years of history as a crossroad between Asia and Africa.
"A museum is like an airport or hospital. It is one of the things that is part of a state," Hourani said.