The Israel Museum is the national museum of the State of Israel and the greatest Jewish Museum in the world. A sprawling world-class complex, no other museum in the entire Middle East with the possible exception of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo boasts so large or diverse a collection as the Israel Museum. Designed to capture the immense, grandiose history of this ancient land and its people, it is home to the largest assortment of Judaica in the world. Among its many exhibits is the Shrine of the Book, which houses the greatest collection of ancient Bible-related documents on the planet, including a large portion of the Dead Sea Scrolls. For any Jewish pilgrim, no trip to Jerusalem is complete without a stop at this magnificent place.
It has been suggested that it is impossible to dig up a shovel full of dirt in the Holy Land without uncovering some ancient artifact or bit of archaeological ruin. Although that might be something of an exaggeration, there is no denying the literally hundreds of thousands of pieces of history that have been discovered here in the last two centuries. In the 19th and early 20th centuries archaeological expeditions sponsored by governments and universities from around the world began to descend on the Holy Land and the rest of the Middle East, intent on uncovering the secrets and treasures of the ancient world.
In 1925, James Henry Breasted, an archaeologist and professor at the University of Chicago, was visiting Palestine where he discovered that there was no proper institution for the preservation, study, display and storage of the region’s antiquities. Working with John D. Rockefeller Jr, who supplied substantial funds for the project, Breasted saw to the establishment of an archaeology museum in Jerusalem. In 1938, the Palestine Archaeological Museum, also known as the Rockefeller Museum, was opened. It became the official repository for many of the Holy Land’s greatest finds. Since 1948, it has also been home to the Israel Department of Antiquities and Museums, now known as the Israel Antiquities Authority.
In the early 1960s, two developments necessitated the creation of a new institute of some sort to deal with Israel’s antiquities. The first reason was political. Until the 1960s, the Rockefeller Museum had been run by an international trusteeship. But the constant threat of war and the museum’s proximity to the Arab zone of control created concern for the museum’s Jewish antiquities. The Rockefeller Museum was, in fact, briefly occupied by Jordanian forces in 1966. The second reason was more practical. Since the creation of the state of Israel, truckloads of new artifacts were turning up every year, more than the existing facilities could handle.
In 1965, it was decided that a new museum would be created: the Israel Museum, a massive new complex that could house and display the best of the huge collection. It would also expand on the Rockefeller Museum’s mandate and house exhibits on art and culture as well as archaeology and history. The old Rockefeller Museum is now run by the Israel Museum, which since its inception has gone on to become one of the most popular museums in the entire Middle East.
The Israel Museum is a sprawling, lego-like masterpiece of modern architecture. Both the exterior and interior areas are adorned with countless works of modern art. The main museum building consists of two major permanent exhibit halls: archaeology and Jewish art; several smaller permanent exhibit halls, including the youth wing; and a number of temporary exhibit halls. The museum’s archaeological collection includes pieces from all periods of Israel’s history as well as Judaica from around the world. The art collection similarly spans a vast spectrum of periods, schools and styles. One of the most popular exhibits of the main museum is neither art nor artifact, but rather a spectacular scale model of Jerusalem during the Second Temple Period which was acquired from the Jerusalem Holy Land Hotel.
The historical highlight of the Israel Museum is the now-legendary Shrine of the Book. Some of the greatest historical Jewish documents ever found are kept and displayed here. The most famous of these are the Dead Sea Scrolls which are on display here on a rotating basis. Another of the Shrine’s great treasures is the Aleppo Codex, the oldest, though somewhat incomplete, copy of the Hebrew Bible.
The Israeli Museum is located in West Jerusalem, some distance from the Old City but close to the Israeli Parliament building. As of the time of this writing, the Israel Museum was currently undergoing a major renovation, so parts of the complex may be restricted or closed altogether. Regular museum hours are Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Thursday from 10:00am-5:00pm; Tuesday from 4:00pm-9:00pm; and Friday from 10:00am-2:00pm. The cost of admission is NIS36 for adults, NIS18 for children. Web: www.english.imjnet.org.il (official website)
Technically speaking, the Rockefeller Museum is part of the Israel Museum, and a shuttle bus runs between the two. It houses additional archaeological exhibits, including some of the older collections. Other major museums in Jerusalem include the Bible Museum and the controversial Third Temple Museum.