Aiight at the Museum: A Review of the Steinhardt Museum of Natural History

This past week I got a chance to visit the new Steinhardt Museum of Natural History at Tel Aviv University. It was informative, visually stunning, and more than all of that, beautiful.

The Steinhardt seen from outside.

I've always said that if you want to get the best idea of a country, visit its natural history museum. The Steinhardt isn't the first natural history museum in Israel, but it may be its prettiest. Israel has a national natural history museum in Jerusalem, which recently found itself in the news for covering up the evolution exhibit when religious tour groups visit. But the cultural divide between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv is wide enough to justify two natural history museums. The latter is located in an underfunded, ornate mansion that once belonged to an Armenian businessman, the other is in a newly constructed Brutalist-ish building somewhat resembling Noah's ark.

The Desert Habitats diorama at the Steinhardt.

One thing that appealed to me was the approach towards the habitat dioramas. Rather than try to compete with the exact-duplicate modelling that you see in the famous dioramas at the American Museum of Natural History—the gold standard of habitat dioramas—the Steinhardt decided to flatten the reality seen in these habitats into abstraction. With the reduced depth of field and overpopulated scenes that violate the laws of perspective, these dioramas attempt to convey as much information as possible about an environment without being constrained by realistic portrayal. They are upfront about being misleading, which is more honest than the dioramas that you'll see in the AMNH.

The Sandy Habitats diorama.

The rest of the museum offers a high level of interactive displays and exhibits geared towards raising environmental awareness that I'm sure kids will tear to pieces once the museum opens up to the general public. The focus is strictly on animal life and the environment—you won't find much about human cultures, fossils, space, or geology (yet). It's an interesting exhibit, though hyper-focused.

At the top floor of the museum the main exhibit showcases the range of biodiversity in the animal world, which is a good opportunity to show off a lot of taxidermy animals all at once. It's explosive on a visual level. But on the other side of the room is another collection within the collection: Father Schmidt's Collection.

Father Schmidt was a German priest and naturalist who began collecting local animal specimens for preservation and display at a small museum at a school in what is today East Jerusalem. That's where it remained for nearly a hundred years, until Tel Aviv University acquired the collection now "on permanent loan and display" here at the Steinhardt.

Some of the graduates of the school have called for the collection to be returned. They protest that not only are the students of Schmidt's school now unable to see the collection—as are the many Palestinians who face travel restrictions that keep them from entering Israel—but also that Tel Aviv University and the museum itself were built over the site of a depopulated Palestinian village, Sheikh Munis.

The museum argues that the collection was in such disrepair that if they had not stepped in, countless examples of extinct and rare regional species would have been lost. Fair enough, but this is very much the kind of curatorial colonialism we know not to take at face value.

But there is a pattern here of general disregard for Palestinians and the conflict at the Steinhardt. Numerous maps in the interactive displays around the museum present an Israel with a border that doesn't include Gaza, but one that does include the entirety of the West Bank and Golan Heights. Of all the human factors that are blamed for worsening environmental conditions in the region, war, and specifically the Israeli military, are never blamed for any of them. And that is simply not the case.

As much as I love this museum—and I do love it—it has that ability to accurately describe its place that I mentioned earlier. If this is Tel Aviv's natural history museum, the Steinhardt describes a city that is stylish, deeply engaging, scientifically advanced, and as fully invested in the Occupation as any settlement, it just doesn't want to admit it.

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