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Not Just a Museum, a Movement

The Story of the Palestine Museum US

Courtesy of the Palestine Museum US

The establishment of the Palestine Museum US in 2018 in Woodbridge, Connecticut, by visionary business executive Faisal Saleh marked a significant milestone in the cultural landscape of the Western world. At the time of its creation, there were no dedicated Palestinian museums in the Western world, leaving a void in the representation of Palestinian art, history, culture, and identity.

In stark contrast, over 70 museums across the United States actively supported Israel and propagated a false and distorted narrative that undermined the existence of Palestine while distorting historical facts to justify the creation of Israel. This prevailing imbalance and bias motivated Saleh to establish the Palestine Museum US as a response to this historical injustice.

The museum aims to cater to two distinct audiences with different objectives. For Palestinians, it serves as a vital testament to their existence, strengthening their identity and sense of belonging. It provides a space where Palestinian art, history, heritage, and accomplishments are celebrated and preserved – an essential affirmation for a people whose narrative has long been marginalized and silenced.

The 150-square-meter exhibit hall that houses the museum’s current architecture exhibit From Palestine: Our Past, Our Future. Left, a 3-meter-wide Utopia #7, by Nabil Anani. Right, monitors displaying virtual reality recreations of destroyed villages, animated Nakba map (by architect Nisreen Zahda), and four student projects reimagining Palestinian villages. Photo credit: Federico Vespignani.

“For decades, we visited other people’s museums,” says Saleh with a sense of liberation. “The time had come for us to have our own museum, where we can put on art exhibits and not have to worry about them being canceled.” With unwavering determination, the Palestine Museum US has emerged as a beacon of cultural resilience, providing a platform for Palestinian artists to showcase their creativity and stories. Free from censorship or external pressures, the museum celebrates Palestine’s rich heritage, presenting a multitude of perspectives through vibrant art exhibits that challenge stereotypes and humanize the Palestinian experience. It stands as a testament to the power of art to build bridges and create understanding, inspiring both Palestinians and the international community to embark on an authentic and transformative journey of discovery.

The existence of the Palestine Museum US serves as a crucial platform for Palestinians to exhibit powerful memorials dedicated to their fallen heroes. It proudly showcases a remarkable memorial wall dedicated to Rachel Corrie, an American Palestine activist whose untimely demise left a profound impact on Palestinians and Americans alike. The museum also displays a haunting mosaic in honor of Gazan Razan al-Najjar, the heroic medic who selflessly tended to the wounded during the weekly Great March of Return confrontations in Gaza (2018) but tragically fell victim to Israeli snipers. Another striking feature is a poignant portrait of Shireen Abu Akleh, a Palestinian Aljazeera reporter whose life was cut short by an Israeli army sniper. In addition, the museum exhibits Gaza children’s artwork that depicts the horrific scenes of Israeli bombings on Gaza, capturing the heartbreaking reality experienced by Palestinian children. These exhibits would have been unthinkable without a museum dedicated to Palestine and a venue owned by Palestinians. The establishment of the Palestine Museum US marks an important milestone in the history of cultural preservation and representation. With its unwavering commitment to promoting Palestinian heritage and narratives, this museum has become a vital platform for sharing the rich history, diverse culture, and resilient spirit of the Palestinian people.

Artwork by John Halaka, Professor of Visual Arts at the University of San Diego. Stripped of Their Identity and Driven from Their Land, 1993-2003. Ink and rubber-stamped text on canvas, 229 x 640 cm. Photo credit: Federico Vespignani.

For Americans and Westerners, the Palestine Museum US serves an equally pivotal role by providing an educational platform that challenges and unravels decades of dominance by the Israeli narrative. Through a careful curation of exhibits, artifacts, and animated displays, the museum sheds light on the rich and deep-rooted history of Palestine. It aims to dispel the inaccuracies perpetuated by pro-Israeli institutions and foster a more accurate understanding of the Palestinian experience.

Visitors to the Palestine Museum US are met with thought-provoking exhibits that explore various aspects of Palestinian art, history, culture, and daily life. From the vibrant art scene and literary contributions to traditional handicrafts and culinary traditions, the museum showcases the multifaceted richness of Palestinian heritage.

What sets the Palestine Museum US apart is its ownership by Palestinians. This representation is crucial, as it guarantees that the exhibits and programming reflect an authentic Palestinian perspective devoid of external narratives or skewed interpretations. By reclaiming space and ownership, the museum becomes a powerful means of resistance and a symbol of cultural empowerment for Palestinians worldwide.

Nara Ronchetti, center, an Italian volunteer docent, explains the animiated Nakba map to a group of visitors from the United States. Photo by Pina Fioretti.

In this museum, visitors can truly immerse themselves in a space that celebrates the beauty and resilience of a people whose history has been marred by displacement and adversity. From the breathtaking landscapes of Palestine to the stories of personal triumphs and collective struggles, the exhibits at the Palestine Museum US offer a powerful testament to the indomitable spirit of Palestinians.

When the COVID pandemic began, the Palestine Museum US swiftly adapted to the changing times by embracing virtual programming. “This new approach has allowed us to continue offering engaging and thought-provoking content to our audience, despite the physical restrictions,” explains Faisal Saleh. He continues, “We have been screening films, hosting artist talks, and facilitating conversations with influential figures connected to Palestine. This shift towards virtual programming has proven to be highly successful, as we now have a dedicated global audience from 40 different countries who actively participate in our Saturday and Sunday weekly programming. We are proud to say that virtual programming has become an integral part of the museum’s activities, opening up new possibilities and enabling us to reach a wider audience than ever before.”

The Palestine Museum US is more than just a museum; it has become a dynamic movement, a place where art and culture converge to give voice to the Palestinian story. Its impact on visitors and its worldwide recognition serve as testaments to the profound influence it has had and continues to have in shaping understanding and fostering dialogue about Palestine. Through its brilliantly curated exhibits and innovative programming, the museum invites audiences from across the globe to immerse themselves in the journey of Palestine, creating a space where stories are shared, voices are heard, and connections are forged.

In 2022, Saleh boldly guided the institution to its pinnacle in the art world at the prestigious Venice Biennale Arte. Determined to elevate Palestine’s artistic voice, Saleh’s ambition shone through as he remarked, “I wanted to take Palestine to the summit of the art world.” The Palestinian exhibit, nestled within the vibrant walls of Venice, showcased an extraordinary collection of 30 works of art crafted by 19 talented artists. Spanning a remarkable seven-month duration, this groundbreaking exhibition drew over 100,000 awe-struck visitors. Their immense appreciation was evident in the bursting pages of nine guest comment books adorned with sentiments expressed in a plethora of languages. The overwhelming majority included heartfelt wishes for a “Free Palestine,” a testament to the profound impact of the exhibition.

Mannequins clad in Palestinian thobes line the museum’s individual galleries as part of the exhibit Art of the Palestinian Thobe, September 10 to December 31, 2023. Photo by Faisal Saleh.

Following the close of the Venice Biennale 2022, the captivating exhibition From Palestine With Art embarked on a new journey, gracing the prestigious halls of the Accademia di Belle Arti di Roma in Rome. For an enchanting period of three weeks, visitors to this esteemed institution were treated to a thought-provoking collection of artwork that eloquently conveyed the unique Palestinian experience. Through a diverse range of mediums, the exhibition showcased the resilience, creativity, and rich cultural heritage of the Palestinian people and continued to captivate audiences, promoting dialogue, understanding, and appreciation of the Palestinian narrative on an international stage.

In 2023, the Palestine Museum US has proudly curated, as part of the 6th edition of the architecture biennial exhibition, Time Space Existence, organized by the European Cultural Center, a powerful architectural exhibition to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Palestinian Nakba. Titled From Palestine: Our Past, Our Future, the exhibition features remarkable virtual reality recreations, allowing visitors to step into recreated Palestinian villages that were lost more than seven decades ago. As visitors walk along the expansive 7-meter map seamlessly integrated into the 150-meter square exhibit hall floor, they are vividly reminded of the land’s Palestinian history. This exhibition is open for exploration and reflection until November 26, 2023, inviting visitors to engage with the past and envision a future of dignity, justice, and peace.

For 2024, Saleh is preparing another blockbuster art exhibition that he promises will be “nothing short of spectacular!” It is expected to feature 23 Palestinian artists and 25 artworks that focus on the conditions in which Palestinians live under the Israeli occupation. “Stay tuned,” he advises.

This installation by recent Columbia graduate Fadl Fakhouri is composed of forty-seven keffiyehs knotted together to form a bridge that symbolizes Palestinian unity. The background, colorful artwork by Nameer Qassim (Jerusalem); right, Mohammed Alhaj ’s (Gaza) Migration pieces; center, sculptures by Sana Faah Bishara (Haifa). Photo by Faisal Saleh.

Saleh, the visionary behind the Palestine Museum US, sees the institution as a remarkable triumph, garnering immense support from Palestinians, Americans, and Europeans alike. He is overwhelmed by the daily encouragement and compliments he receives from people all around the world, including numerous Palestinian artists who recognize the significance of the museum. For Saleh, the museum is not just a typical cultural institution; it is a game changer in the Palestinian art world.

Mannequins displaying Palestinian thobes. In the background, watercolors and embroidery combination by Jacqueline Bejani (Luxembourg), and to commemorate memorial mosaic for Razan Al-Najjar, a Gazan volunteer medic who was murdered by Israeli snipers during the Great March of Return, 2018. Courtesy of the Palestine Museum US.

He passionately explains to others that the museum’s uniqueness stems from the extraordinary circumstances it operates within and the specific goals it aims to achieve, intricately tied to the historical and current realities of Palestinians. Despite the well-meaning advice thrown his way by various individuals regarding the museum’s direction, Saleh considers it as nothing but second-guessing, lacking a thorough understanding and appreciation of the museum’s crucial historical mission. However, he finds solace in the encouragement of influential Palestinian art figures who urge him to persevere and brush aside those who attempt to reduce the museum to “just another museum.”

Residents of the retirement community Whitney Center on a visit to learn about Palestinian history, art, and culture. Photo by Faisal Saleh.

Among the significant challenges that Saleh faces as the curator at the Palestine Museum US is the resistance from a few “established” artists who refuse to exhibit alongside artists they deem of “lesser” quality. They fear that their reputation may be tarnished by the proximity to what they consider as “weak” artwork. However, Saleh is determined to change this mindset. He believes that the museum’s role is to create opportunities for artists, uplifting them, and giving hope and inspiration. Saleh’s motivation stems from thinking about the artists in refugee camps who work under harsh conditions with limited resources, such as the artists in the Yarmouk refugee camp and other devastated Palestinian open-air prisons in Lebanon and Gaza. He aspires to bring their work to the world stage and tell their stories, showcasing their resilience and creativity amid adversity. The aim is not only to display their artwork but also to shed light on their struggles and provide them with the recognition and platform they deserve.

Cecilia Casorati, director of Accademia di Belle Arti di Roma, with Faisal Saleh, wrapped herself in a Palestinian flag as she gave VIPs a tour of the exhibit From Palestine With Art, originally a Collateral Event of the Venice Biennale Arte 2022, which she re-curated to fit her academy’s gallery. Courtesy of ABAROMA.

Since its opening five years ago, the Palestine Museum US has transcended the boundaries of a traditional museum, emerging as a powerful movement that resonates with people across continents. Through its thought-provoking exhibits and innovative programs, the museum has touched the hearts and minds of Palestinians and non-Palestinians alike, leaving a lasting impact on their lives. Deena Hamdan, a New Jersey resident with Palestinian heritage, vividly recalls her visit to the museum as nothing short of incredible. It became a transformative experience for her, reconnecting her with her roots in a profound way. The museum provided a sacred space for Deena to explore her identity, fostering a deep sense of belonging and understanding. From Italy to Germany and beyond, visitors from around the world have marveled at the exhibition titled From Palestine: Our Past, Our Future. This groundbreaking display has astonished many who question whether such courageously honest storytelling could ever exist in their own countries. For some, the museum’s exhibitions challenge the status quo, fearlessly fostering dialogue about the Palestinian experience. Many visitors, such as Nara Ronchetti, a volunteer tour guide from Venice, Italy, marvel at the museum’s bravery and recognize that it might be criticized or misunderstood elsewhere. The museum’s global recognition has soared, attracting attention not only in the United States but also internationally. John Lindner from Connecticut has closely followed the museum’s growth and highlights its expanding global audience. According to Lindner, the museum’s success can be attributed to its founder’s astute understanding of the power of arts and culture in conveying the Palestinian narrative. By skillfully curating exhibits that touch upon the complex history and rich heritage of Palestine, the museum has become a beacon for those seeking a deeper understanding of the Palestinian people. One of the standout exhibits is the current Nakba exhibit in Venice, which continues to captivate audiences with its poignant storytelling. Its ability to spark empathy and shed light on a lesser-known chapter of Palestinian history has drawn followers from all corners of the globe. Furthermore, the museum’s engaging online programs further extend its reach, attracting a growing online community of supporters who eagerly anticipate the latest digital offerings.

For more information, please visit the museum’s website at https://www.palestinemuseum.us/

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