artBahrain in conversation with Jack Persekian
Jack Persekian steps into the role of director for the Palestine Museum. With an extensive career in the art world and a huge amount of enthusiasm for the task at hand, Jack’s confidence combined with professional standards tells us what to expect from his plans at the museum.
As director/curator of international art projects, you bring a huge amount of experience and expertise to your new role as director of the new Palestine Museum – what would you like to achieve for the museum in the coming years?
I would like to see the museum live up to its mission of becoming a “transnational museum”. The deep value of the Palestinian Museum lays not only in its mandate to build a hub in Birzeit, but more importantly in connecting and linking Palestinians around the world, by establishing partnerships and affiliate centers in various countries. This, in its essence, is the antithesis to what we’ve been witnessing in Palestine – and for a long time now – from divisions to ghettoization to fragmentation, dispersion and dispossession. As I’m planning the program and the shows for the museum, I am determinedly pushing myself to think across borders and barriers, not succumbing to the restricted geography and mobility, and cordoned territories imposed by the Israeli occupation and internal divisions. The idea of a transnational museum has conceptually resolved my dilemma with the post Oslo segregation between Palestinians inside the West Bank and Gaza and those residing outside the Palestinian Authority territor(y/ies). On another front, it also puts forth an alternative bottom-up approach to “international” outreach vis-à-vis the franchise propositions by some “multinational” museums. This, of course, is not the only achievement I would like to score. There are a couple of ideas I would very much like to pursue such as few exhibition ideas and artists projects. But the most exciting yet complex undertaking I will be struggling with is the challenge of putting together the nucleus of the permanent collection for the Palestinian Museum. “I” here is definitely not “me” alone, but a whole team of young and talented men and women working for the Museum in addition to a super supportive, dedicated and selfless Board of Trustees and staff of the Welfare Association.
Returning to Palestine and organizing Qalandiya International was a bit of a homecoming for you, would you say that the transition to run an art museum challenging in any way?
I would like to say: challenging is many ways. This is not a museum that was up and running, and I simply came to run it or run with it. It is a museum in the making in a place that has not seen a similar project in scale and scope. You should not forget that we are living under occupation, and the simplest things anywhere else can be a big issue and problem here. Take for example the issue of getting people from outside the country to work for the museum – particularly Palestinians who have certain expertise and who are more than willing to come and volunteer. If we’re lucky Israel would issue them a visa once to visit and only for a short period of time. This would not help at all. But if it’s a Palestinian or any other person carrying a “wrong” passport (i.e. a passport that is not recognized by the state of Israel), there is no way this person would ever be able to come to Palestine. Hence, the pool of expertise and knowhow is very shallow locally, and very expensive and unaffordable if we’re considering the West as a source. The challenges are many and varied, as I mentioned above, yet to me it’s quite exciting and a great privilege to be part of the effort of establishing The Palestinian Museum.
You’ve enjoyed a prominent and successful international career as an art curator. What have you learnt along the way that can help you overcome the major challenges now facing museums and are you optimistic about the future of museums?
Generally, I am an optimistic person, and I always (or maybe I should say ‘most of the time’) try to see the glass half full. It is rather obvious or maybe clichéd to say that life is a learning curve and whatever challenges or difficulties one faces and tackles would, eventually, form part of the accumulated experience and knowledge one brings along to the next project. I know you are looking for specific experiences but I’m at a loss where to start and what is more interesting to the reader. Yet I can think of one thing that I learnt the hard way. Saying or thinking that one knows better for s/he had “successfully” done it before, can possibly backslide into an Achilles’ heel. Every situation and every context and every place is different and to a large extent specific. You probably notice or feel certain tastelessness or blandness in exhibitions put together by globetrotting curators who produce sizeable yet loosely held shows time and again. No matter how familiar the situation appears or simple the solution seems, I think I learnt to always look with a fresh eye and open mind, eager to learn, willing to acknowledge my limitations, yet avid for meaningful outcome and
COMMUNITY AND ENVIRONMENT
What kind of value will the museum bring to the Palestinian community? How will the museum be interwoven with community experience?
The Palestinian Museum is aiming to be a unifying body, a place where every voice is heard. It is a place for research, dialogue and reflection and a meeting place for all Palestinians wherever they are and all those interested in Palestine. To achieve this at such a large scale the very thinking of the museum is interwoven with the fabric of society. The very existence of its physical structure is essentially an outgrowth of the community’s existing structures and entities. The museum hub being built in Birzeit is on the Birzeit University land, and its branches and satellites in various places inside and outside Palestine are actually partnerships and collaborations with existing entities, such as community centers, educational and research institutions or simply private not-for-profit initiatives. In our inaugural exhibition we are asking ordinary people from all walks of life and from different places to contribute with their objects and personal stories. Hence, right from the very beginning we’re trying to make a point (hoping it will resonate for a long time, as the first impression is the last) that it’s the voice of the ordinary people, not the “all-knowing experts”, which will be heard in this museum.
How is the architecture of the museum designed to accommodate its natural surroundings? What are some of the unusual aspects of the museum structure?
One has to first acknowledge that the site in Birzeit is quite overwhelming. It is a hilly and terraced landscape that roles down into the valley, as it looks onto the Mediterranean Sea in the western horizon. These agricultural terraces were created by stacking the field stones to make a hilly terrain productive, but seen from an architectural perspective according to the architects’ [Heneghan Peng] brief “they create memorable architectural landscape of parallel lines defining the hills”.
So the architects established a grid which structures the site allowing it to be developed at various stages while organizing it in terraces following the formal language of the landscape. The forms of the building and the outlines of the landscape are structured to be recognizable yet follow the natural contours of the site.
When one looks at the contours of the building it seems as if it’s emerging from the landscape at the highest point of the site with views to the cascading landscape created by the field stonewalls, and the Mediterranean in the far distance. The architects underline their design concept as embodying “building traditions but is projective with this knowledge to imagine a 21st century tradition”.
Your leadership of the Palestine Museum coincides with very difficult economic times – how do you think this will impact on the funding of the museum and what will you be doing to ensure the financial stability of the institution? Is the museum funded entirely by the government or by private funding?
The museum is entirely funded by private funding, from Palestinian businessmen and women who have organized themselves thirty years ago in what has become the leading Palestinian philanthropic institution – the Welfare Association. Yes we all recognize that it’s dire economic times, but from what I’ve witnessed in the last fundraiser we organized, there is tremendous enthusiasm for the idea of the museum and many Palestinian individuals, families and companies are more than willing to donate in cash and in-kind to the museum. We are working now on establishing an endowment fund, which with time will hopefully constitute a security net and provide sustainability and continuity for the museum.
How can people and organizations partner with the Palestine Museum?
As mentioned earlier, the foundation for the museum outreach is partnerships with institutions and individuals who will help us make the connections and linkages with Palestinians all over the world and with all those interested in Palestine. We will reach out to institutions (art, community, educational, research, …) and individuals with ideas for collaboration and joint activities. I think it’s rather easy and quite straightforward. It is in our mandate and of course in our best interest to make partnerships. So please do spread the word.
AS JACK PERSEKIAN, THE PERSON
What would you like your legacy to be?
The person who made it possible.
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