The Canadian-based Asper Foundation aims to tell ‘the good news’ rather than focusing on the Holocaust with its ambitious $400 million project.
The new museum complex will be located in the port area of Tel Aviv. Its vision is to strengthen a sense of shared pride and collective identity amongst Jews around the world. The World’s Jewish Museum will include pavilions on, variously; innovation, enterprise, enquiry, education, creativity, and the environment. It will also provide a hub for the performing arts.
The project is the brainchild of Gail Asper, president of the Canadian-based Asper Foundation which is responsible for the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, which opened in 2014.
It also runs the Asper Foundation Human Rights and Holocaust Studies programme which introduces young people to a combination of study and community service.
Nearly 70 percent of Jewish museums around the world focus on the Holocaust and the survival of the Jewish people. Asper, in contrast, wants to create a major cultural and entertainment centre that focuses on the enormous contribution Jews have made, and will make, to the world. “In teaching one side of the Jewish narrative — the Holocaust — to young people, I felt we weren’t teaching enough about the positive, and about the uplifting narrative that would change the paradigm,” said Asper in an interview with The New York Jewish Week.
Creating a curiosity about what’s inside
The Tel Aviv project is set to be designed by world-famous architect Frank Gehry. His dramatic design for the site is, unsurprisingly, eye-catching – a series of bold white curvilinear structures. Gehry says his inspiration came from watching his grandmother preparing gefilte fish. Gehry’s previous designs, such as the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, have had such a positive effect that the phrase “the Bilbao effect” has been coined to suggest the phenomenal effect a renowned “starchitect” can have on a city project.
Museums, says the architect, are far more than a collection of exhibits. They involve ideas and education, a place for people to gather together and be inspired by human accomplishments. His aim is to “create a curiosity” about what’s inside. He says the design needs to reflect a museum that is “going to have to be continually moving, changing, growing, within its space, and adapting.”
Museum exhibition designer Ralph Appelbaum is also on board, as is rabbi, author and ethicist Joseph Telushkin, who has acted as a consultant for the project, shaping the vision and content of the museum.
Telushkin is clear that the new museum will not be a Jewish Hall of Fame but will focus on the contributions Judaism has made to the world. “Jewish ideas have transformed the world without the world knowing it,” he said. “Now it will.”
Concerns over clash of interest
Concerns have been voiced over whether the new museum could adversely impact attendance at The Museum of the Jewish People at Beit Hatfutsot, situated nearby on the campus of Tel Aviv University.
However the Asper Foundation says it conducted a feasibility study that concluded that Tel Aviv does not have a “must-visit cultural institute” or iconic architectural symbol today. The study, by McKinsey & Company, said and that the World Jewish Museum could provide both and felt that the museum’s target of 850,000 visitors a year is “feasible”.
Fundraising at critical stage
Ron Huldai, Tel Aviv’s Mayor, is an enthusiastic supporter of the project. The city has gifted the prime, six-acre site at the port area of Tel Aviv. Fundraising is now at a “critical stage”. The hope is that funding can reach a tipping point so the museum can be completed by 2023, the 75th anniversary of Israel.
“We have a great story to tell,” said Asper. “It’s time it was properly told.”