Diaspora Museum on the Verge of Economic Collapse

Tel Aviv Institution Faces Closure Unless Additional Funding Can Be Found

By Elli Wohlgelernter

Published August 29, 2003, issue of August 29, 2003.
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JERUSALEM — The Museum of the Jewish Diaspora in Tel Aviv, once famed for its cutting-edge technology and innovative exhibitions, is on the verge of total economic collapse and will be forced to close unless additional funding can be found to keep it alive.

A special committee headed by former finance and justice minister Ya’acov Ne’eman has been appointed by Education Minister Limor Livnat to find funding solutions for the museum, which has historically been plagued by fiscal mismanagement, and which has seen its annual visitor-base drop from a high of 450,000 in the early 1980s to some 76,000 expected for this year.

At the time of its opening in 1978, the museum was a powerful symbol of the growing intimacy between Israel and the Diaspora. Conceived by Abba Kovner, leader of the Vilna Ghetto uprising, the Nahum Goldmann Museum of the Jewish Diaspora — named for the Diaspora Jewish diplomat who served for years as president of the World Zionist Organization and founded the World Jewish Congress — was dedicated to the history, tradition and heritage of the Jewish people to the present day. The building’s three floors on the Tel Aviv University campus house permanent exhibitions, a computerized database containing Jewish genealogies from all over the world, a photo archive and music and educational centers.

“It would be a real shame if the world had to do without the Diaspora Museum,” said Susie Weiss, a former tour guide in the museum. “It displayed the beauty of Jewish culture throughout the ages, throughout the world. It reminds Jews the world over — Israel included — why our land is necessary to our existence.”

Part of the museum’s problem has been the poor management of its finances, with a current debt of $1.4 million. Six years ago the average monthly wage of the museum’s five senior officials was $8,097, as compared to $7,254 for officials at the Israel Museum and $6,150 for administrators at the Tel Aviv Museum.

Cuts were made, but problems persisted. The 2001 budget stood at $4.16 million, which in two years was cut in half. The staff was cut from 162 employees to 62, and where once there was one director and three deputy directors, now there is only one, Rani Finzi.

In addition, the museum closed its doors on Thursdays, and expenses were cut. But at the same time, income from supporting agencies and institutions also dropped, leaving the museum in the same desperate financial shape. The financial woes reached an embarrassing stage last month, when bailiffs came with an order to repossess one of the museum’s cars because of the institution’s debt to tax authorities.

The museum has also had a history of bad management, with a turnover of seven directors in its 25-year existence. Indeed, management-labor squabbles were a constant source of friction, once even leading to a 42-day strike in the summer of 1995 that forced the museum to close its doors at the height of the tourist season. That strike ended through arbitration and the establishment of a commission, which found a demoralized staff, antiquated technology and unimaginative and insensitive management. It concluded that unless the museum got itself back on track within 18 months, it would have to be shut down for good.

Further hurting the museum’s finances over the years was the drop in visitors, which has been attributed to two factors. The lack of tourists in the past two years during the wave of Palestinian attacks has been the major cause of the decrease of visitors, just as it has affected all walks of Israeli life. In 2001 some 200,000 visitors were coming to the Diaspora Museum, a figure that in one year fell to 76,000, a total similarly projected for 2003.

At the same time, the museum itself was also to blame. What made the Diaspora Museum different than other museums was that its designers chose not to display collections of art, treasures or objects preserved from the past, and there are hardly any historic artifacts displayed on the museum’s three floors. Instead, the history of Jewish life and culture in exile is chronicled through a variety of methods, including models, dioramas, films and presentations.

If the centerpiece of an exhibition is, in part, the technology that drives it, then keeping that equipment up to date is a prerequisite for a successful museum. But the constant economic pressures over the years led to an absolute deterioration of the technical apparatus.

“When we first opened, we used to have an instructor near every computer station, because no one knew how to use the computer,” Finzi said. “Nowadays, we also have an instructor near every computer, because again no one knows how to use our software — because it is so old.”

Moreover, Finzi said, some of the permanent exhibitions have not been replaced, and people feel that they have already seen them and do not need to return to visit. The result has been a growing negative image, with the museum being perceived as irrelevant.

One of the museum’s few consistent supporters has been the Jewish Agency, which provides $445,000 a year and includes a daylong visit to the museum as part of its Israel Experience program. Bobby Brown, head of the agency’s property department, said that despite the fact that the Jewish Agency itself has been cutting back on its programs and staff, it decided that it was important to continue contributing to the museum’s upkeep.

“There is a growing distance that we often see between the Diaspora communities and the State of Israel,” Brown said. “If the Diaspora Museum has a theme, and that theme is that throughout Jewish history we are one, and what happens to one happens to the other, then if there is a center of learning about our history wherever Jews have been, it’s there. We considered the message and the means of that message to be a very important cultural treasure in the State of Israel, and for the Jewish people.”

Finzi is optimistic. He was chosen to take over the museum last November, primarily for his previous ability “to take an organization in a bad situation and improve it a little bit — or more than a little bit.” Together with the Ministry of Education, a marketing campaign has been instituted to make the museum a focus for educational programs at schools.

The committee set up by the ministry is expected to meet for the first time today, and will present its recovery plan within six to eight weeks.

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