Palestinian Museum Brings History to Life

The West Bank museum aims to create a narrative of hope and engagement.
4 April, 2017
Birzeit University donated 10 acres of land at its location near Ramallah for an important undertaking: a museum to honor the Palestinian people and their land.
"We would like to speak to the youth of Palestine with a view for a better future," explains Dr. Mahmoud Hawari, the director of the new Palestinian Museum. To do that, the Heneghan Peng architects fused the past and present, choosing traditional construction and garden design practices while building with the most modern materials.

The 3,500 square meter museum proudly boasts of being the first LEED-certified green building in the Palestinian Territories, with features that will reduce its annual energy consumption by 27 percent and its water use by 37 percent over traditional construction. Birzeit is in the mountains, 850 meters above and just 45 kilometers from the sea. Summers are dry, winters mild and rainy, and the only way to farm the land is by terracing it. These factors lent themselves to design, and are especially important in the arid climate of the Middle East, where resources and materials are often scarce and at a premium.
Among those materials is the aluminium for exterior fins in the café and gallery, to help shade windows from the hot sun while protecting views from a high hill that overlooks the coastal plains to the sea.

The museum is actually built into a slope to make the best use of land cooling and terraces, incorporates natural stone to add to the cooling capacity – the light limestone is also reflective – and apart from the air-conditioned main gallery, relies on natural ventilation and lighting. The geometric lines of the concrete roof also capitalize on the bioclimatic design principles used to build the Palestinian Museum.
It has "the 'worked' quality of a city; every element of it has been touched and tells a story of intervention, production, culture, environment, commerce. Like a city, the terraced landscape has embedded within it its history," the architects say.

The building contains the museum exhibition spaces you might expect, as well as an amphitheater, classrooms, office spaces, and indoor and outdoor cafeterias. When the Ireland-based architects visited the site for the first time, it was clear that gardens needed to be a focal point of the museum. "Rather than thinking of the museum as a building surrounded by landscape, we considered the entire site to be the museum, with some space inside and some outside," says firm co-founder Róisín Heneghan.
In part, she said, that's because of the power the plantings have to evoke memories. The museum focuses on a positive future rather than the lament of the Palestinian past, which was a change from the original vision, yet much of that past exists only in memory and story. Fragrant herbs like lavender and sage, included with other native plants and trees in the landscape, are an essential part of the museum. The gardens are equipped with power and connectivity and serve as an alternative exhibition space.

The $17.5 million museum plans its first exhibition for September, on Palestinian representations of Jerusalem. It will include artists and collectives from other locations, particularly in Jerusalem, and will bridge the gap created by travel restrictions and barriers through an online museum community and experience.