Museum Showcases Bible Times
Jerusalem collection helps give shape and meaning to ancient cultural interactions
JERUSALEM — ON a hill above the Valley of the Cross, where the timber for Christ's crucifixion is said to have been cut, a unique museum opened last week to give shape and meaning to other Biblical events.
The Bible Lands Museum Jerusalem opened its doors to a priceless display of artifacts collected by 78-year-old Elie Borowski over the length and breadth of the Middle East, most dating from the time span covered by the Bible.
The idea, says curator Joan Goodnick Westenholz, is "to place Biblical society in its environment," because "without knowledge of the encompassing cultures, the culture of the Bible cannot be fully understood."
"We are trying to three-dimensionalize the unseeable, unknowable but communicable idea, the spirituality" expressed in the Bible, adds Clifford LaFontaine, the museum's designer.
The collection is housed in an elegant new building faced with rosy-cream Jerusalem stone, that sits on a steep hillside, its long, low frontage crowning the brow of the slope. Inside, the museum is bright and airy, lit by skylights, and laid out to offer a dramatic sense of space.
Illustrating daily life in many different cultures, stretching in time from 6000 BC to AD 600 and in space from the Tigris to Carthage, "is a problem," acknowledges Mr. LaFontaine. "You have to work with expansive areas, not little warrens."
The 500 or so items on display, chosen from the full collection of 3,000 artifacts, range from heavy stone sarcophagi to delicate pieces of jewelry, from exquisitely carved seals whose motifs can only be deciphered under magnification to waist-high earthenware urns.
Artifacts are presented chronologically, rather than by geographical origin, so that pieces from Anatolia, Egypt, and Mesopotamia can be seen in the same gallery and compared. The aim of this approach, explains Dr. Goodnick Westenholz, is "to achieve a clearer focus on the mutual influences, on the positive as well as negative interactions of the various states and cultures of the whole region."
The design of the museum also emphasizes the connectedness that binds all the pieces into a collection with a purpose, says LaFontaine, who designed the Rockefeller wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, among other projects.
The walls - heavy and slope-sided to evoke ancient architectural styles - do not reach the ceiling or connect with each other, leaving the eye free to roam "and giving you the option of visiting the materials from different angles," says LaFontaine.
Items on display, and the way they are displayed, illustrate more than the technical and artistic influences different cultures exerted on each other, though.
"The exchange of ideas, values, and spiritual innovations," says LaFontaine, is central to the development of monotheism. This is the thrust of the museum as it "follows in the footsteps of humankind groping its way towards the transcendental," says Goodnick Westenholz.
The link between the objects and the peoples who made them is drawn through quotations from the Bible above many of the display cases.
"Woe unto them ... that lie upon beds of ivory" reads an excerpt from the book of Amos above an ivory bas relief believed to have graced the bed of Hazael, a 9th-century-BC king of Syria.
The effect of juxtaposing the words of the Bible with the things they describe, weaving the display with a story, means that the museum "borders more on poetry than any other reference," says LaFontaine.
"In a museum on the Elizabethan age you have the armor, you have the dagger," he says. "But without 'Is this a dagger that I see before me,' you lose the cultural context." The Biblical quotations, he adds, are key to providing such a context.
LaFontaine's reference to poetry points up a fact that museum officials do not hide: This is an art collection more than an archaeological exhibition because of the way it was assembled.
A number of Israeli archaeologists have belittled Dr. Borowski's collection, arguing that because all his pieces were acquired on the shadowy antiquities market, rather than from the sites at which they were excavated, one can never be certain about their provenance.
That alone diminishes the collection's value, they say, quite apart from the fact that the willingness of collectors like Borowski to buy artifacts encourages theft from archaeological digs.
Although most items in the museum must at one point or another have been illicitly obtained before Borowski bought them, he and his colleagues brush off charges that they are handling stolen goods.
"I like to use the word 'intercepted' " says museum director Benjamin Abileah. "Dr. Borowski intercepted the trade routes, and this way the items are coming back to the public, rather than ending up in private villas or in bank vaults."
"There is no collection in the world that has been collected differently," insists Batya Borowski, Elie's wife. "Things are either bought or stolen, and we bought everything."
Mr. Abileah also says that even if everything was acquired second hand, the objects are still of major archaeological importance.
"In very few cases can it be said that an artifact [in the collection] was found at such a height in such a location at such a site," he acknowledges. "But enough can be known about them to make them very valuable for interested people."
Parts of the Borowski collection have been shown before, on loan to other museums or in a traveling show that crossed Canada and Europe, but this is the first time that it has been put together in public.
Borowski, born in Poland, is an antiquities dealer by profession, although he started his adult life studying to be a rabbi. He switched to archaeology before the outbreak of World War II, which caught him in Paris studying at the Sorbonne.
Joining a Polish Jewish battalion of the French Army, Borowski retreated into neutral Switzerland with his unit when the Germans overran France. He completed a doctorate in archaeology at Geneva University. The rest of his family, however, still in Poland, perished in the Holocaust.
It was then, says Batya Borowski, that her husband decided to concentrate on Biblical artifacts. Over a lifetime of dealing, he assembled an unmatched collection, and over the last 10 years he has poured $12 million of his own money into his dream of housing it in Jerusalem.
"Right from the beginning, when he lost his family, he kept thinking that there must be a way to bring people back to their sanity, to make sure this horror would not be repeated," Mrs. Borowski says.
"He is a secular man in many ways, but a religious man in his principles. And the only way, he thought, was for people to go back to the Bible."