Museutopia , Second Chapter : Photographic Research of Military Historical Museums in Israel 2015
Museums have served as a history-shaping instrument for centuries. The accumulation of objects, natural and artificial alike, naming and systematically classifying them, is one of the ways to know the world. However, it is clearly evident that museums have also been shaped by the varied contexts and basic premises that were dominant in different periods and different places.
A museum, therefore, is not a final object. It is not a fixed entity that is created in the same way at all times and in all places, nor is it grounded in ancient models and ideas that underpin its existence. A museum is a mechanism. It is a culture- and history-making machine. Its identity, aims, and the functions it fulfills change in accordance with the hegemonies and order of privileges customary in a given society. A museum – a society’s storyteller – is therefore a political and social product that reflects the power relations that created it, and the contexts within which it operates and which it is supposed to represent.
However, a museum does not only tell a story, classify, and document; it also erases. In his photographic project Museutopia, Ilya Rabinovich studies national museums, observes how they represent ideology and myth, and examines the kind of society reflected through the perspective they create – and the kind of society reflected in the perspective itself.
Rabinovich photographed the first part of the project (also presented in the exhibition) in his hometown, Kishinev, the capital of Moldova. He chose to photograph the second part of the project in eleven military museums in Israel, to which he immigrated when he was eight, and from which he moved to Holland where he currently resides. In their article for the book that accompanied the project in Moldova, Huub van Baar and Ingrid Commandeur quote Slovakian dissident Milan Šimečka who claimed a few years before the fall of Communism that communist regimes were surprisingly successful in organizing collective forgetting. It may well be that Communist era museums were not the only ones that created this phenomenon. In fact, erasure and forgetting are part of the direct activities of museums by their very function as instruments for shaping, writing, editing, and classifying national histories. The writing processes, as well as the erasure and forgetting processes, function similarly under any regime. This is in fact one of the cornerstones of museal practice. Rabinovich’s project in Moldova and Israel creates a kind of index of these museal practices in the context of societies that are undergoing change or building processes. It provides a visual examination of the tools employed by museums, and of how a museum itself serves as a means of writing – and erasing – history. Rabinovich’s visual research process also provides insights concerning the changing role of museums and the social and political implications of this change.
Most of Israel’s military museums that are presented in the exhibition belong to the Ministry of Defense Museums Division. In other words, the Ministry is responsible for their ongoing operation and maintenance, and for determining the content of their exhibits and the instruction provided in them. Twelve museums operate under the Division’s aegis, and focus on various military heritage chapters, especially the establishment of the State of Israel and the various wars. Most of the museums were originally established by non-profit organizations that sought to relate and preserve the stories of various organizations, their leaders and their fallen, and in the main remained involved in the museum’s operation.
It is interesting to note that many of the museums documented in this exhibition were established in the late 1980s in post-First Lebanon War Israel – a war that constituted a milestone in the decline of the Israeli public’s blind faith in its political leadership, the IDF, and the official narrative of a “war of no choice”. Perhaps an answer to the question of why the State of Israel turned its attention some forty years after its establishment to establishing military heritage institutions for the purpose of educating the young who are not part of “the founding generation”, can be found here: Perhaps then, more than ever before, there was an evident need to validate a heritage that had not previously been considered “history”, but rather “reality”.
Observation of Rabinovich’s photographs creates on the one hand a sense of intimate familiarity, an almost instant understanding of the story being told, which stems from the fact that it has been told so many times and by so many means – in kindergarten, school, television, ceremonies, and so forth. On the other, this sense of familiarity is also attended by a feeling of discomfort that possibly stems from the disparity between the well-crafted narrative presented in the museums and the means they employ – and perhaps more so by the disparity between the museal content and the reality of contemporary life in Israel. In this mix visitors may also find a strain of nostalgia, of shared longing for a period that was and is no more, a period from which contemporary life is distant and detached. However, when we observe the distant reality in the photographed documentation, a sense of embarrassment emerges as well; after all, it is not only the remembered narrative that we recognize, but also ourselves as we were when we encountered it naïvely and accepted it at face value, without inquiring, without asking questions concerning what it said and did not say. (Compare this with the tolerant softness and even compassion in the photographs of the museums in Moldova. This is perhaps reserved for a country that has admitted the failure of the idealistic and absolute story, and is contending with the difficulties of creating a credible contemporary narrative).
The source of the sense of discomfort emerging from the photographs, therefore, is not only the narratives presented by the museums or our own identity as these museums’ addressees, past and present. It is primarily associated with the feeling that they are endeavoring to tell a uniform story, to participate in a unifying process and in creating a new, single collective. This “melting pot” process underlying the Zionist enterprise, in which the army is one of its principal means, is accurately reflected in the military museums. They completely ignore Israeli society as multicultural, and attempt to present it as homogenous. Thus, in virtually every case, those who were forced to pay the price of the melting pot are absent: the Mizrahi, the Arab, the Ethiopian, the Russian… anyone who is not considered “Israeli” according to the hegemonic perception. In this respect, the museums are monuments to Israeli society as the “old elites” sought to shape and see it. The Israeli society reflected from them has no connection whatsoever with actual Israeli reality.
The experience offered by the photographed museums has not stood the test of time in a basic material respect either. The content and the arrangement of the displays in them belong to an era in which cultural stories were related by an omniscient narrator to a mostly convinced audience, with a linear perception of reality wherein good and bad are absolutes. But the world has changed considerably since then: the accessibility and availability of information from a vast variety of sources has chipped away at the exclusivity of the official narratives, and the presence of technology has accustomed us to total flash experiences.
The content of the photographs themselves articulately attests to this. The sites documented in them are not impressive, and certainly do not present uniformity of museal language and practice. Most of them present patchwork spaces comprising added construction, improvised cabinets, portable walls, and outdated display cases: none of which look strong or impressive even as the remnants of a unifying ideology, as an archeology of narrative. It is doubtful that even in the past these spaces possessed the power to create a meaningful visiting experience. Is it possible that when the story is sufficiently strong, the means of its dissemination are less important? Is it only when the narrative begins to weaken that the need to reinforce the visual and interactive means arises in order to turn a museum visit into an experience and a pastime? Is this the nature of the often spoken of correlation between declining ideology and the rise of the culture of experience and entertainment, wherein the exhibition spaces of museums are shunted aside in favor of commercial and food spaces? In this respect too, the museums that Rabinovich photographs are archeological sites. Monuments to an ideology.
This is not to say that the irrelevance of the museums attests to the fact that Israeli society itself has abandoned the narrative they present. Israeli society still considers the story of the establishment of the State of Israel – the story of the Jewish people’s return to its land, the story of “a land without a people for a people without a land” – as its seminal narrative, with all that this implies in terms of writing and erasure alike.
Consequently, we may need to look elsewhere for the root of the change that has resulted in the irrelevance of these museums in recent decades.
It possibly originates in the animated debate being conducted in Israeli society concerning the monopoly over power. This debate renders the centers of power and the hegemony less transparent and self-evident. A good example of this is provided by Anat Rimon-Or in her article “From the dying Arab to ‘Death to the Arabs’: The modern Jew and the Arab residing within him”, in which she states that at times the impression is that cries of “death to the Arabs” are far more disturbing to the Israeli public than the actual death of Arabs at Israeli hands in and outside the State of Israel. The verbal abuse directed at leftists and Arabs is generally identified with a low socioeconomic status, a Mizrahi-rightist public. By contrast, the killing itself, when perpetrated institutionally, accords prestige to the operation, and for many years this act was reserved for the social elites generally identified with the Left.
What is revealed here is not shock at the violence, but the loss of monopoly over it. This monopoly, which was so self-evident in Israeli society, is represented by the museums photographed by Rabinovich. Its decline gains no expression in them, despite the fact that as military museums they tell, among other things, the story of the State of Israel’s utilization of power. The transformation and change Israeli society is undergoing in these contexts are not expressed in them. Consequently, it may be said that more than telling the story of the establishment of the State of Israel and the story of the Zionist Movement, these museums tell the story of a specific sector in Israeli society and represent its perception of itself as charged with writing the history of this society – with its truth.
The profound processes of change Israeli society had been undergoing in recent decades have turned this voice, which in the past was this society’s transparent and self-evident voice, a voice that had no need for an identity other than “being Israeli”, into one of many voices in a polyphonic and multicultural society. In this respect, the irrelevance of the museums stems from the fact that they have become sectoral museums that represent a specific group. They have lost their monopoly over “being Israeli”. Consequently, this is not a decline of the narrative, but only of the monopoly over its writing.
It is surprising and saddening to discover – albeit still too soon to assert unequivocally – that the multiplicity of voices does not necessarily create diversity in the narrative or challenge its basic premises, or even rediscover truths that have been erased and forgotten. This can be likened to the promise embodied in the opening of the Israeli media market to multi-channel television: what at first seemed a breaking of the monopoly of the public channel, and was supposed to lead to a diverse variety of opinions, turned out to be multiple commercial channels that tell the same story.
Hadas Zemer Ben-Ari Eyal Danon The exhibition was made possible with the generous support of the Mondriaan Fund.