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Treasures destroyed and masterpieces in vaults: War's toll for art in Israel and Gaza

Artwork from the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, which were moved into the museum's underground safe to protect them from possible damage caused by rocket attacks, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, on Nov. 14. Tel Aviv museum director Tania Coen-Uzzielli poses in front of Gustav Klimt's "Portrait of Friederike Maria Beer," 1916.
Maya Levin for NPR
Artwork from the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, which were moved into the museum's underground safe to protect them from possible damage caused by rocket attacks, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, on Nov. 14. Tel Aviv museum director Tania Coen-Uzzielli poses in front of Gustav Klimt's "Portrait of Friederike Maria Beer," 1916.

Curators of Israeli and Palestinian history and art have found themselves confronted by very different realities in the scramble to preserve museum works in the middle of an ongoing war.

In the frightening early hours of the Hamas attack on Israel on Oct. 7, some museums in Israel worked quickly to remove priceless artifacts and art from their walls into safe bunkers in the basements of institutions like the Israel Museum in Jerusalem and the Tel Aviv Art Museum.

Many staffers, who dedicate their lives to preserving cultural artifacts, put aside their own fears and concern for their families and set out to work as word of the brutality of the Hamas attack spread.

These are items that will outlive all of us, Tel Aviv Art Museum Director Tania Coen-Uzzielli told NPR of the unprecedented decision to move several major pieces of modern artinto the facility's secure vaults since the outbreak of the war.

Tel Aviv Museum workers take a break inside the mostly empty museum.
/ Maya Levin for NPR
/
Maya Levin for NPR
Tel Aviv Museum workers take a break inside the mostly empty museum.

"Those are really the cultural treasures of the state and all the world," she said of the value behind protecting pieces from artists like Marc Chagall, Georgia O'Keeffe and Pablo Picasso.

But like so many things, the outbreak of war between Israel and Hamas poses a different kind of threat for Palestinians and their work to protect cultural landmarks and museums.

More than 1,200 people were killed in the attack by Hamas on Israel on Oct. 7 and more than 240 people were kidnapped. The air-and-ground assault on Gazalaunched by Israel in response to the attack has displaced millions of Palestinians and killed more than 16,000 people, according to Gaza health officials.

In Gaza, there was virtually no option to move valuable artifacts into secure bunkers or to take action to protect ancient landmarks. Israel's military has turned many areas of Gaza into rubble and forced millions of people to evacuate south. Many people have only been able to grab a few items from their homes before fleeing.

"From what we've seen until now, it's catastrophic," said Mamdouh Froukh, a curator at the Yasser Arafat Museum in Ramallah in the occupied West Bank, of the losses to the region's ancient cultural heritage. "This is the worst destruction of Palestinian history."

More than 100 cultural landmarks in Gaza have suffered serious damage from the Israeli military's operations there, according to a recent survey by the group Heritage for Peace. They include the Great Omari Mosque and the Church of Saint Porphyrius, thought to be the third oldest church in the world.

In Gaza, Froukh said, "We are afraid that everything is lost."

A spokesperson for the Israeli military did not respond to a request for comment. But the military has defended its bombing by saying its goal is to save hostages and destroy Hamas, whose militants they maintain are hiding in extensive tunnels underground in Gaza.

Preserving history is "bigger than all of us"

Hagit Maoz was first awoken by Israel's bomb sirens early on the morning on Saturday, Oct. 7.

"We didn't understand yet how serious it was," she said. Given the number of bomb sirens in a short amount of time and the sound of rockets, she said she realized this event was far more significant.

Maoz had two sons at home with her that day. As news of the Hamas attack was slowly shared by confused and scared Israelis, like Maoz, she received word that she had to report to work at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

Stand-in images of the Dead Sea Scrolls appear at the Israel Museum. The actual scrolls have been moved into safe storage as fighting continues in Gaza.
/ Tanya Habjouqa / NOOR Images for NPR
/
Tanya Habjouqa / NOOR Images for NPR
Stand-in images of the Dead Sea Scrolls appear at the Israel Museum. The actual scrolls have been moved into safe storage as fighting continues in Gaza.

That's where Maoz serves as the curator of the Shrine of the Book and is in charge of the care and curation of the Dead Sea Scrolls, ancient religious manuscripts dating back to the third century BCE. The Shrine of the Book is the cave-like repositorythat houses the first seven scrolls of the manuscripts.

As the bomb sirens rang out across the country throughout the day and the extent of the attacks by Hamas remained unclear for hours, Maoz left the safety of her home to go to the museum with the goal of removing the multiple pieces of the Dead Sea Scrolls from their display into a secure vault.

"We can't take the risk that this might be damaged. We are the custodians," she said. The last time the Israel Museum removed the Dead Sea Scrolls from display was during the Iraq War.

Maoz only had the museum's deputy chief security officer to assist her in this monumental task. On top of mind for the two were their families: The security officer's daughter was called up to the military that very morning and Maoz's sons hid at home.

Works of art from the Tel Aviv Museum of Art has been moved into the museum's underground safe to protect them from possible damages caused by rocket attacks.
/ Maya Levin for NPR
/
Maya Levin for NPR
Works of art from the Tel Aviv Museum of Art has been moved into the museum's underground safe to protect them from possible damages caused by rocket attacks.

On that Saturday, the Tel Aviv Museum of Art also worked to remove its Alberto Giacometti show as the pieces by the Swiss sculptor and painter were particularly delicate and valuable, according to Coen-Uzzielli, the museum's director. Shortly thereafter, the institution made the tough decision to remove many of its pieces from the modern art wing. Still, more than nine weeks later many walls of the of Modern Art hall remain empty, while other large pieces remain covered in protective cardboard.

The museum includes works that survived major wars and the Holocaust and has significant meaning for the state of Israel, she said.

Like many institutions around the world, history and art museums have a so-called "war list" of items curators would pull from displays if there was a threat to the building.

"It's the most valuable, most precious artworks, or the most important artifacts that we are holding in the museum," said Nurith Goshen, curator of The Feast exhibition at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

The Israel Museum entrance to what would have been the current exhibit, "The Feast" if not for closure due to war.
/ Tanya Habjouqa / NOOR Images for NPR
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Tanya Habjouqa / NOOR Images for NPR
The Israel Museum entrance to what would have been the current exhibit, "The Feast" if not for closure due to war.

On the weekend of Oct. 7, she also came into the museum to remove a number of historic artifacts from her wing of the museum that were included on this list.

"This is monumental. This is what we do. This is our job. If the Shrine of the Book or one of these really symbolic artifacts is hurt, it's bigger than all of us," Goshen said.

"There is no safe space"

Some 18 or so miles from the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, in Ramallah, in the West Bank, the Yasser Arafat Museum remains open, with just a handful of visitors a day walking through its exhibits. In better times, the museum has tens of thousands of visitors, many of them foreigners, each year.

The museum decided to keep each of its artifacts from Arafat — like his glasses, notebooks and clothes — still up and hanging during the war, in a break with the response by the museums in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

Froukh said of the museum's reasoning, "There is no safe place in Palestine for the museum objects and their history."

A view of the Arafat Museum from inside the building housing Yasser Arafat's burial site.
/ Tanya Habjouqa / NOOR Images for NPR
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Tanya Habjouqa / NOOR Images for NPR
A view of the Arafat Museum from inside the building housing Yasser Arafat's burial site.

There was a debate among curators before the museum was created over whether it was a good idea to have this building in the first place. "Because Palestine is a conflict area" and there is always the potential of an outbreak of violence that could threaten the museum and its valuable items, Froukh said.

Keeping that at the top of mind, Froukh said the museum's leaders took 3D photos and digitized the objects it shows in the museum to preserve them for the future and to reproduce them if need be.

The museum covers the contemporary history of Palestinians and the start of the conflict between Palestinians and the Israeli state, Froukh said. Now, in the midst of this current war, this history is more important than ever to share with visitors, he said.

"The origin of the old problem is explained in this museum. We explained how the beginning of the conflict started, which is not the seventh of October, it's in the beginning of the 20th century," he said.

The major focus of the museum is, of course, Arafat. The Palestinian political leader, who was adored by some and reviled by others, led the Palestinian Liberation Organization to sign the 1993 Oslo Accord, in which Israelis and Palestinian agreed to recognize the other's right to exist. He and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace for this agreement in 1994, though their talks to secure a lasting peace eventually fell apart.

The museum still displays Arafat's Nobel Prize.

In 2002, Arafat was confined to his presidential compound in Ramallah, where the museum now sits. As part of its permanent exhibition, the museum preserves Arafat's bunker where he spent more than three years under siege by the Israeli government.

For some time, the Arafat Museum had plans to open a second, smaller location in Gaza in the political leader's old house, Froukh said.

As part of its permanent exhibition, the Arafat museum preserves Arafat's bunker where he spent more than three years under siege by the Israeli government.
/ Tanya Habjouqa / NOOR Images for NPR
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Tanya Habjouqa / NOOR Images for NPR
As part of its permanent exhibition, the Arafat museum preserves Arafat's bunker where he spent more than three years under siege by the Israeli government.

When NPR last spoke to Froukh a month ago, it was unclear if that building was still standing.

For Gaza, there is no way to keep precious historic and cultural items safe amid the ongoing Israeli bombardment of the territory, according to Froukh.

Gaza's Rafah Museum that showed the region's multi-layered history, was completely destroyed in Israeli airstrikes.

"There were priceless items from coins, precious stones, copper plates, clothes," Rafah Museum director Suhaila Shaheen, said in Arabic in a recent video interview posted on the museum's Facebook page.

Beyond physical buildings and cultural institutions, there is evidence that ancient landmarks buried in Gaza are lost forever, according to Eyal Weizman, the founder and director of Forensic Architecture at Goldsmiths, University of London.

Forensic Architecture, is a research agency that investigates human rights violations. Last year, the group issued a reportrevealing how Israeli operations in Gaza threatened a valuable archaeological site where researchers found evidence of Roman and Hellenistic-era structures.

The threat has reached colossal proportions throughout Gaza with Israel's latest military incursion, Weizman said.

As early as Oct. 8, one day after the Hamas attack in Israel, Weizman said researchers saw evidence of three large craters from Israeli rockets — indicating major damage to an archaeological site Forensic Architecture previously studied.

The impact for Palestinians is bigger than just losing physical landmarks, Weizman said.

"To erase the past is to erase their culture," he said.

And further, Gaza and historic Palestine has been inhabited by various people, cultures and religions for thousands of years, he said.

He said to see that destroyed, "is what makes it all the more heartbreaking."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.