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An Interview with Samar Martha: “Our view of things also has to be presented”

Thomas HaselCopyright: Thomas Hasel
Curator Martha in Berlin: “We hope that pilgrims will not only visit the Church of the Nativity” (Photo: Thomas Hasel)

22 December 2011

Samar Martha was asked to designed a Museum of Palestinian Narrative in Bethlehem. This kind of museum is urgently needed, the curator tells us in an interview. Yet how the Palestinian perspective of history should look is also disputed in her homeland.

Ms Martha, what is behind the idea of the Museum of Palestinian Narrative?

Martha: The museum is meant to tell the history of the Palestinians; the history of our culture, our society as well as the political history from the time around Jesus’ birth until today. The museum will be housed in an existing building in the direct proximity of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and will both contain archaeological finds and work with multimedia, such as films, to tell the story of the Palestinians. Another idea is to invite international artists to create works of art that take up certain events in Palestinian history.

Are their specific historical aspects that you wish to emphasize?

We have only just begun work on the concept. But one important topic will certainly be that of the Palestinian refugees since 1948, because that has very much characterized our self-image. One idea is to ask people who fled from the territory of modern Israel in 1948 and today live in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip or overseas to tell their stories in video interviews. Yet I also wish to illuminate more recent historical events, such as the Intifada and the conflict between Fatah and Hamas in recent years.

Aren’t these topics quite disputed among Palestinians?

They are. And that is why all decision-making politicians must be involved in the concept from the very beginning. It is, of course, an important issue who decides about the stories that will be told. We set up a number of discussion groups to deal with these questions. Also, UNESCO, which supports the project, must be convinced of our concept as well as the Peace Center, whose building we are using.

Why did you come up with the idea of this museum?

For a simple reason: because we’ve never had such a museum. Internationally, the perspective of Palestinian culture and history is very marked by the Israeli perspective. We would like to counter that with a museum that takes up a Palestinian perspective. I do not know whether a museum alone can change international perceptions, but it’s a start. We also hope, of course, that in future pilgrims and tourists from around the world who come to Bethlehem will not only visit the world-famous Church of the Nativity, but also our museum across the way.

In Israel is it very controversial whether there can be a Palestinian perspective of history that differs from that of the Israeli perspective. Critics say that insisting on different versions doesn’t help to overcome the divide between Israel and Palestine.

I find this argument strange since of course there can be different perspectives of historical processes, especially in conflicts. It is time for things to also be presented and looked at from our perspective. But this is not a single, distinct viewpoint; even among Palestinians there are many stories and perspectives of what has happened over the past 60, 70 years.

Do you plan to also involve Israeli artists or academics in the conception of the museum?

If they deal with Israeli history is a self-critical way, then yes. Otherwise we have many problems with the Israeli authorities, for instance because they will not allow the artists we invite to enter. Works of art created abroad are also not allowed into the Palestinian Territories. And for Palestinians living in other Arabic countries or the rest of the world it will be nearly impossible to visit our museum since they cannot cross Israeli borders. That is why the virtual space, the museums’ website, will be very crucial for our museum concept. Many of the 10 million Palestinians around the world will only be able to visit our museum on the internet.

In the conflict between Palestinians and Israel, violence has not only come from the Israeli side. Will the issue of Palestinian violence also be broached?

We will make an effort to show many sides. But every national museum has a specific, limited perspective. That is the case all over the world, perhaps with the exception of Germany, where the museums deal very critically with their own history. But for us, the main priority is to portray something like a Palestinian identity. Also for our children to whom we need to convey a more clear awareness of their own origins. Young Palestinians should be proud of their identity and believe that something like Palestine can exist, even if hardly anyone believes this anymore. Many of our people have no more hope. Perhaps the museum can give the people a little of their hope back.

Do you hope that there will soon be a Palestinian state?

Not in my lifetime.

Thomas Hasel asked the questions.

The internationally active Palestinian curator Samar Martha, born in 1970, was in Berlin in late November to learn more about museum educational concepts and the use of new media. She was sponsored by the Goethe-Institut visitor programme.

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