Museums around the world wonder how—or if—to respond to Israel-Hamas war, The Art Newspaper, 3 November 2023
Gareth Harris. with additional reporting by Benjamin Sutton and Stéphane Renault.
Many cultural institutions have remained silent about the ongoing crisis.
As the Israel-Hamas war intensifies, with the present focus on the humanitarian crisis in Gaza together with urgent negotiations to free around 220 Israeli hostages, many arts and heritage institutions in Europe and the US are struggling to know how to respond.
The Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris immediately postponed a series of events linked to its exhibition What Palestine Brings to the World (until 19 November)—which have since been rescheduled—while the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London told The Art Newspaper: “We are deeply saddened by the tragic loss of life in Israel and Palestine.”
Meanwhile the Museum of Contemporary Art in Barcelona (Macba) has issued a statement on Instagram calling for an immediate ceasefire, the opening of humanitarian corridors and the release of hostages. “We mourn the deaths on both sides of the Gazan border and want to express our solidarity with the pain of all victims.” The museum adds: “We are deeply concerned with the attempts at silencing those voices, within the international art community, which defend the Palestinian people’s right to live.”
On 7 October Hamas terrorists crossed into Israel on a murderous rampage, killing more than 1,400 people and taking around 220 hostages. More than 120 people were killed by gunmen who tore through the Be’eri kibbutz, while Israeli officials said at least 260 people attending a music festival were killed outside the village of Re’im.
The Israeli military responded to these atrocities with a declaration of war against Hamas, launching airstrikes and placing Gaza under siege. More than 9,000 Palestinians have been killed—most of them civilians—according to figures from Palestinian health authorities cited by the BBC.
On 13 October Israel called upon 1.1 million Palestinians who live in northern Gaza to leave the area, a directive that the United Nations (UN) said is “not feasible” and “could transform what is already a tragedy into a calamitous situation”. The situation has escalated quickly; according to The Guardian, Israeli forces have “completed the encirclement of Gaza City” and are fighting “with full force”, Israel Defence Forces spokesperson Daniel Hagari said, while the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, has urged the Israeli government to agree to a series of “humanitarian pauses” in the fighting in Gaza.
Artists have responded with two open letters. Some of today’s biggest contemporary names—including Nan Goldin and Mark Leckey—are among 150 artists, curators, musicians, writers and publishers who signed an open letter published by Artforum on 19 October in support of the Palestinians: “We stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people. We ask arts organisations to show solidarity with cultural workers and call on our governments to demand an immediate ceasefire.”
But the letter drew criticism from a number of influential figures in the art world, for initially omitting to mention Hamas’s 7 October massacre while a number of the letter’s signatories, including the artists Peter Doig and Joan Jonas, withdrew their names following the backlash.
On 23 October, Artforum ran an update to its letter, stating that the rejection of “violence against all civilians, regardless of their identity” included a shared “revulsion at the horrific massacres of 1,400 people in Israel conducted by Hamas on October 7th”. The editor-in-chief, David Velasco, was subsequently dismissed and Artforum’s publishers said that the letter was “not consistent with Artforum’s editorial process”. Three other senior editors at the magazine have resigned.
This prompts the question as to whether museums, which have the means to increase cultural and historical understanding, should remain silent or address the ongoing crisis. The International Council of Museums (Icom) has previously issued statements in relation to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the murder of George Floyd.
The latter, in June 2020, included the assertions: “Museums are not neutral. They are not separate from their social context, the structures of power and the struggles of their communities. And when it does seem like they are separate, that is a choice—the wrong choice.”
In a strongly worded letter of 22 October, the Israeli branch of Icom appealed to the organisation to take an active, ethical position on the war and “condemn [Hamas’s] acts of terror with the utmost fervour”. The letter adds: “We also want to remind the Icom community that Israel is a liberal democracy that protects freedom of expression, diversity, and the arts—values that the Icom community shares, as shown by the most recent revisions to the definition of a museum. These exact ideals are being attacked by Hamas in their assault on our cities and communities.”
On 25 October, Icom’s main body issued a statement in response to the crisis: “The International Council of Museums (Icom) expresses its deep concern about the current violence affecting Israeli and Palestinian civilians and deplores the significant humanitarian consequences that the conflict has had over the past weeks. Icom extends its sincerest condolences to those who have lost family, friends, and community due to the violence.”
The statement also includes a reference to the Hague Convention for the protection of cultural heritage, a warning about the smuggling or destruction of cultural objects, and the expectation of an “immediate ceasefire”. Meanwhile, in the plaza outside the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, Israeli organisations such as Mosaic United have set up a table with 200 empty seats, representing the missing hostages.
The quandary for the UK’s Department for Culture, Media and Sport, which oversees 15 national museums, was highlighted last month when, in the wake of the 7 October massacre by Hamas, Lucy Frazer, the culture, media and sport secretary, proposed that the Football Association (FA) illuminate London’s Wembley Arch in the colours of the Israeli flag (the star of David flag was projected on to landmarks in London, Brussels and Berlin in a show of solidarity with Israel on 10 October).
But, as Israel immediately declared war on Hamas, the FA decided instead that players on both the England and Australia teams would wear black armbands in memory of the “innocent victims of the devastating events in Israel and Palestine”.
A spokesperson for the Imperial War Museum (IWM) in London tells us: “As a global authority on war and conflict, it is IWM’s role to explore the causes, course and consequence of war, from the First World War to present-day conflict. While we are not currently planning any activity linked to events taking place in Israel and Palestine, our public programming helps visitors to understand the devastating impact on ordinary people, the far-reaching consequences and the lasting legacy of war.”
Meanwhile, a spokesperson for the V&A says: “We hold objects in the collection from both Israel and Palestine and have previously exhibited works and developed partnerships exploring the cultural heritage of the region, including working with the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, hosting a delegation from Haifa Museums at V&A South Kensington, and a textile conservation partnership with the Palestinian Museum.”
An Institut du Monde Arabe spokesperson says that events linked to its Palestine exhibition have been postponed, not cancelled, mainly because it is proving difficult for certain artists to travel from the Middle East to participate. “President [of the museum] Jack Lang took the responsible decision to postpone this series, so as not to penalise Palestinian artists and to preserve a legitimate space for expression [for the artists] within the framework of the What Palestine Brings to the World exhibition.”
The postponed events included a symposium on the French writer Jean Genet and a debate on the Nakba (the Arabic word for “catastrophe”, used by Palestinians to describe the mass exodus from the region after Israel was founded in 1948). These events have now been rescheduled for 18-19 November.
France steps up security
France was placed under maximum-security alert in the wake of the Hamas attack in Israel and the resulting Israeli offensive against Gaza, and because of a suspected terrorist attack in the north of the country in which a teacher was murdered. In a nationally televised address, President Emmanuel Macron said police and military protection was being stepped up at 582 religious and cultural sites across France, amid rising anti-semitism and Islamophobia. Both the Musée du Louvre and Palace of Versailles were temporarily evacuated on security grounds.
A Louvre spokesperson says that the museum will not comment on the international situation. “The safety of visitors and national collections is our number-one priority. The switch to ‘emergency attack alert’ decided by the Prime Minister naturally resulted in increased vigilance, particularly in relation to visitor access checks,” the spokesperson says.
In the US, the quandary for museums has intensified. The Frick Pittsburgh museum has postponed an exhibition of Islamic art, citing concerns regarding the ongoing war in Gaza. The museum announced the postponement of the exhibition on 17 October, ten days after Hamas’s attack on Israel.
Several Jewish institutions have taken a stance, from the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, both of which condemned the Hamas attacks. The latter said in a statement: “Through the power of Holocaust history, the museum challenges leaders and individuals worldwide to think critically about their role in society and to confront anti-semitism and other forms of hate, prevent genocide, and promote human dignity.”
The Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, announced meanwhile that “in response to the ongoing humanitarian catastrophe facing our Palestinian brothers and sisters in Gaza right now”, the institution had decided to cancel its annual fundraising gala.
El Museo del Barrio in New York issued a conciliatory statement supporting and upholding human rights, and the “peaceful resolution” of this conflict, encouraging museum visitors to donate to a trusted charity of their choice. “During these fraught times, we continue to host visitors and artists of diverse and differing beliefs and viewpoints through our doors,” the museum says
A leading cultural body in the Middle East has meanwhile taken a stance; the leadership of the National Museum of Qatar and the Museum of Islamic Art, both in Doha, projected images of the Palestinian flag on to the exterior of both institutions as war was declared.
Crucially, Qatari officials have since played a central role in securing the release of the US mother and daughter, Judith and Natalie Raanan, who were held hostage by Hamas, and are playing a key part in the ongoing negotiations.