Contested Spaces

The British Mandate period was punctuated by outbreaks of civil unrest: the Great Arab Revolt (1936-39) and the Jewish Insurgency (1939; 1944-48). These episodes saw attacks on the British in Palestine in reaction to their colonial policies and resulted in large numbers of British troops being sent into Palestine to regain control.

In January 1938, the British archaeologist James Starkey was murdered en route to the opening of the Palestine Archaeological Museum. Later that year, British troops were stationed in the Museum. To control unrest in the Old City, four machine guns were set up in the Museum Tower. Iliffe took many photographs of soldiers in the Museum. Six months later, Iliffe himself was shot and severely wounded outside his house in Jerusalem.

In 1948, during the civil war in Palestine, Iliffe’s diary shows his deep concern over the Museum’s future as he prepared to evacuate to Transjordan. There was uncertainty over whether the Museum would be occupied, turning it into a military target yet again.

Today, international law makes it illegal to occupy a museum in this way. However, the past is often used contentiously to construct competing narratives that support political and religious agendas. As a result, museums can become contested spaces in armed conflicts, because they provide a way to control the past.

Throughout the Mandate period, and particularly during the period 1936-39, British troops were stationed throughout Palestine to assist in maintaining law and order, and to provide protection for British officials. This photograph shows an unidentified British military camp in the south of Jerusalem.

Untitled (Soldier Patrols Shell Tanks, Jerusalem)

Untitled (Soldier Patrols Shell Tanks, Jerusalem), 1936-1939

In late 1938, a large influx of British troops arrived in Palestine in order to suppress the Arab Revolt (1936-39). These images, taken by JH Iliffe in the Museum he was employed to maintain, show British troops billeted in the cloisters and courtyards with equipment, including rifles, propped against walls alongside antiquities.

Untitled (Soldiers in Palm Court, Palestine Archaeological Museum), 1938

Untitled (Soldiers in Palm Court, Palestine Archaeological Museum), 1938

Untitled (Soldiers in Cloisters, Palestine Archaeological Museum)

Untitled (Soldiers in Cloisters, Palestine Archaeological Museum), 1938

Untitled (Soldiers in Cloisters, Palestine Archaeological Museum)

Untitled (Soldiers in Cloisters, Palestine Archaeological Museum), 1938

The British troops based in the Museum used its Tower as an observation and machine-gun post to support efforts in the Old City to put down the Arab Revolt. In this image, a soldier on the left sits on two cases of .303 machine-gun ammunition, while others examine pale coloured boxes with a shamrock design containing rations.

Untitled (Soldiers in Palm Court, Palestine Archaeological Museum)

Untitled (Soldiers in Palm Court, Palestine Archaeological Museum), 1938