The Museum of the Palestinian People: 'We want our story told not just once, not as an event, but over and over again'

What was once a travelling exhibit telling the story of Palestinians has now taken up permanent residency in Washington DC; an institution that hopes to bring about a shift in perceptions of Palestine in the West

"Ruth" story. Bethlehem bride & groom after wedding touching green. Leaf & yeast above doorway to prospective house, facing camera. G. Eric and Edith Matson Photograph Collection / Library of Congress
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The Museum of the Palestinian People opened its doors in Washington, DC, earlier this month. The museum is a first in the city and is dedicated to telling the stories of the people of Palestine, fostering a conversation about what it means to be Palestinian and nurturing a better understanding of an identity that remains highly politicised and largely obscured in the West.

"It's a museum where people get introduced to the Palestinian story and Palestinians as a people, not as a news item," says Nizar Farsakh, chairman of the museum. Farsakh, who has advised Palestinian leaders, became involved with the project after meeting with founder and director Bshara Nassar.

He came up with the idea for a Palestinian museum in 2014, and then developed it into a travelling show a year later. But he then spent several years working to achieve his ultimate vision of a museum, rather than simply an exhibition. In addition to the various problems that face any start-up, such as funding, he also encountered collective resistance to the idea. "Many people said, 'No, this is not going to happen,'" he says.

Farsakh says that resistance had less to do with a lack of desire to tell the Palestinian story and was fuelled more by the perception that they would face formidable hurdles because the story they wanted to tell was so politically charged and divisive. "The Arab-American community feels the weight of how hard it is to have a conversation about Palestine that is fair and balanced," he says.

It took time, but he and Nassar were able to build a strong foundation of support. They estimate that about half of the funding for the museum came from individual donors, and the items given to them demonstrate the strong trust that was put in their ability to tell the Palestinian story. "We realised we have a leadership role to play in our community, to give them the courage to imagine, to have hope and to have that vision."

Nassar says Washington is a natural home for the project. "So many people came to DC to share their stories," he says, citing the Smithsonian's sprawling footprint in the city and the ways in which the museum network has given space to marginalised stories. He says he hopes his venture will have a permanent place in its landscape, too. "We want our story told not only once, not as an event, but over and over again," he says. "We want this to be a space where people can come continuously to hear our voice."

'A Normal Day' (2018) by Ahmed Hmeedat, is one piece of artwork on display at The Museum of the Palestinian People

The collection takes up the main room on the first floor of a terraced house in north-west DC. The space was donated by a family, and will be its home for two years. Nada Odeh, who moved to Washington from Syria in 2013 and is now head curator at the museum, says the team put a call out for items that could fill the space and remain in it for the duration of the exhibition's stay there. It was stipulated that the items must be the property of the people offering them, in an effort to safeguard against the museum being inadvertantly drawn into the black market that has pillaged parts of the Middle East.

The first permanent exhibition showcases the wide variety of items that were donated. Wedding photos and passports from the British mandate period sit alongside resistance posters and recent works by Palestinian artists.

Century-old vases and glasswork are also on display, as well as an edition of National Geographic from 1914 in which the "Holy Land" and Palestinian agricultural tradition are discussed. As you leave the permanent exhibition you see the Wall of Fame, a collection of potrtaits of Palestinian scholars, feminists, entrepreneurs and more – showcasing the impact the diaspora has had on the world. As well as the items themselves, placards hang on the walls explaining facets of the country's history, including the Nakba and the modern Palestinian diaspora.

'The Struggle for Justice is Still Young' (1970), a poster by the General Union of Palestinian Students/Liberation Graphics. Photo by Bridey Heing. Courtesy of the Museum of the Palestinian People

By meeting members of the Palestinian community, the team behind the museum were able to ask directly what should be highlighted and discuss how their story should be told. Efforts were made to include as many representations of Palestinian identity as possible, to ensure their depiction was comprehensive. But weaving that into a cohesive narrative was a challenge for Odeh. "This is a long history and a rich culture that you want to display, but you cannot put everything on the wall," she says.

In the first temporary exhibition, Re-imagining a Future, visual artist Dalia Elcharbini's gold and silver leaf gilded Femme Fellah highlights the political and ideological concerns that colours visions of Palestine's future.

But the items in the museum are actually more of a starting point than an end. The space is designed to be a hub for conversations about what it means to be Palestinian, using events, workshops, performances, and partnerships with institutions and organisations across the US to engage with visitors. "We do not want to be the authority. We want to make this the people's museum and to engage them as much as possible," says Farsakh.

The museum’s mission statement says it hopes to create a space “where people are not marginalised because of the artificial distinctions we use to create borders between us.”

Farsakh says he wants the museum to be a place where non-Palestinians can see themselves reflected in universal human worries, hopes and experiences. "We want visitors to come in, hear our stories told by us in our own ways, and find themselves and find what's common for us as human beings," he says.

'Femme Fellah' by Dalia Elcharbini at The Museum of the Palestinian People

By connecting the public with the Palestinian experience, the team wants to bring about a profound shift in how the West approaches the fraught political debates that surround Palestine, while also giving immigrants from Palestine a place to tell stories.

"This is the one thing that's going to have the biggest impact on changing the conversation," says Farsakh. "Our goal and vision is nothing less than overhauling the conversation about Palestine and Palestinians, and this is the place to do it."

The Museum of the Palestinian People in Washington, DC is now open