(Re)Constructing the Past

JH Iliffe explained his curatorial aims for both the use of space and display of the collection in a paper published in conjunction with the Museum’s official opening in 1938. (The Museums Journal 38, 1938)

The ‘one leading principle’ unifying the Museum, Iliffe wrote, was ‘the collection, conservation and preservation of knowledge concerning the past of Man in Palestine, whether by books, written documents or records, or the actual remains of his handiwork.’ Iliffe arranged each gallery chronologically, offering a ‘synopsis of the cultural history of Man in Palestine, from his beginnings in the stone-age…down to A.D. 1700.’ He believed that in a historical museum, this design was the ‘most easily intelligible… to the ordinary visitor.’

However, working in Palestine brought its own challenges. The Mandate Government instituted English, Arabic and Hebrew as the country’s official languages. By law, official documents were to be set out in this hierarchical order. If this instruction was followed in the Museum, the number of labels would outnumber the artefacts. Instead, Iliffe created tri-lingual gallery books, each containing ‘a numbered list of the antiquities on exhibition, with a brief description of each, its provenance and date, and a few general notes.’

One of Iliffe’s concerns as a curator was to create a sense of unity between the various archaeological sites represented in the Museum by arranging the collection chronologically, rather than by site. This photograph shows Jewish students visiting the Bronze Age displays in the South Gallery.

During the Mandate, Jewish immigrants set up secondary schools, teacher training and technical colleges (with Hebrew as their main language), and in 1935, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem established a department of Archaeology to support the professional training of Jewish archaeologists.

Orthodox Jewish Students in the Palestine Archaeological Museum, 1938-1948

A Palestinian-Arab Museum attendant stands before a Roman altar in the Museum’s snow-covered Central Court. Part of his uniform is the tarbush (a type of fez), a hat often also worn by the educated Arab middle class. Hats were used as a way to identify different social groups during the Mandate period.

Untitled (Central Court of Palestine Archaeological Museum under snow), 1941-1948

Under the Mandate government, the Director, Chief Inspector and Keeper of the Palestine Archaeological Museum were all British archaeologists. However, the Museum employed many locals. For example, Jalil Baramki became Assistant Keeper, and Stephen H. Stephen worked in the library as a translator. Pictured here, restoring a Bronze Age incense burner, is Mubarak Saad, a formatore (cast-maker) with the Museum. His son Joseph Saad also worked at the Museum and went on to be the Secretary of the Palestine Archaeological Museum in 1948. Many locals trained as Museum guards, attendants (see Photograph 1), and technicians to help deal with the large number of archaeological finds.

Tinting the Repairs, 1931-1938

Museum staff witnessed a great deal of violence, and British attempts to deal with it, during the Mandate period. Both the visit of the British High Commissioner to Palestine and the VIP party organised in conjunction with the Museum’s official opening on January 11th 1938 were cancelled when one of the guests, British archaeologist James Starkey, was murdered on his way to the event.

In this photograph, taken while the Museum was being used as a military post in 1938, soldiers rest against a Roman sarcophagus and funerary altar on display in the cloisters of the Museum. The altar was set up by Roman soldiers of Legio V Macedonia (the 5th Macedonian Legion), Flavius Moderatus and Iulius Ingenuus, for their fellow centurion, Marcus Ulpius Claudius Magnus, originally from Savaria (in Pannonia). The legion was sent  by Hadrian to Palestine, then the Roman province of Judaea. Marcus probably died during the Bar Kochba rebellion c. AD 132-136.

Untitled (Soldiers in Cloister of Palestine Archaeological Museum), 1938

(Re)Constructing the Past