Designed by Mandate British architect Austen St Barbe Harrison, and funded by a two million dollar donation from the American philanthropist John Rockefeller Jr., the new Palestine Archaeological Museum in Jerusalem officially opened in 1938.
The Museum, built from local limestone, occupied a ten-acre site overlooking the north-east walls of Jerusalem. Harrison’s Museum dominated the landscape, a stark white sprawling building with a squat tower and domes, rising alongside the Old City. Once described by the famous archaeologist Flinders Petrie as a ‘white sepulchre’, more recently architectural historians have identified the uniqueness of Harrison’s style. Fuchs and Herbert see in it a mixture of ‘abstract orientalism’, ‘transcendental regionalism’ and ‘Beau Arts rationality’, a style reflecting Harrison’s ‘paternalistic and preservationistic conception of colonial rule.’ (Architectural History 43: 2000)
The building contained not only the functional spaces needed to support a museum, including laboratories, workshops, storage areas, a photographic studio, library and records facilities, and staff offices, but also elaborately designed and richly decorated rooms. These included exhibition galleries, cloisters, courtyards with fountains and pools, and a lecture theatre and reading room.
Rockefeller’s donation solved the funding difficulties of the Department of Antiquities, responsible for the care and conservation of antiquities discovered in Palestine. The new Museum provided a permanent home for the Ottoman collection (established in 1901), the existing collection, and the ever increasing number of recently excavated finds.
In 1950, Harrison wrote: ‘The Jews entered Palestine under the wrong auspices - as westerners instead of orientals.’ This perhaps explains his eclectic architectural style, neither acknowledging Palestine as the Jewish national home, nor reflecting Arab nationalism. Local labourers were employed as construction workers on Mandate Government projects, as shown here.
The Central Court of the Museum featured a lily pool. This picture, taken from the domed Fountain Alcove, looks towards the Tower, one of the most controversial features of the building. Its final design, based on three superimposed octagonal prisms, is lower than first planned, so that it did not dominate the nearby Dome of the Rock, but instead, appeared to rise beside it.
The elaborate interior of the Tower Hall was reserved for special exhibitions and the display of recent acquisitions. The Hall introduced visitors to the Museum, whose galleries were all located on one level and arranged chronologically.
The spectacular Reading Room, with its large arched windows, featured six cross vaults, partially supported on three limestone columns. Each vault was divided off by a double bookcase, forming a separate study bay with reading table