Multimillion-Dollar Palestinian Museum Opens Without Exhibits

Organizers wanted to open "because we think this is an awesome building."

— -- The views outside the Palestinian Museum in Birzeit, in the occupied Palestinian territories, were the only thing on offer at today's opening ceremony — sweeping vistas of olive trees, terraced hillsides, a landscape distinct to this piece of land.

Inside the beautiful $24 million Bethlehem limestone and glass angular building designed by Dublin firm Heneghan Peng was a rare sight for the opening day of a museum: blank, white walls, with not an exhibition on the property.

To be fair, the freshly painted walls of the main exhibition hall were adorned with blueprints of the museum, overlaid with words and phrases such as "Freedom" and "Palestine is you" in Arabic calligraphy.

Then there were wheelbarrows, concrete mixers and construction helmets. It's not an exhibition, organizers hastened to clarify; it's an ode to the construction of the building.

So why open in such haste? The completion of a building 20 years in the making is a moment worth celebrating, according to the museum's chairman, Omar al-Qattan.

"We wanted to open anyway because we think this is an awesome building," said Qattan.

"This is one of the first projects of this size and caliber to be created with Palestinian effort, money. Even the contractors are all Palestinian," he added. "A collective achievement is very important in a situation of cynicism and division like we live now."

Admittedly, they're not there yet. Disputes with previous directors and delays due to Israeli customs have stalled the process, organizers say.

"This is a place and a project that we [take] pride that we managed to get to this point in spite of the occupation," said Tafeeda Jarbawi, the director general of Taawon, the nongovernmental organization that bankrolled the majority of the project. "The building is only the beginning for creating a space."

And the art will come, organizers say. "We're hoping [by the] end of 2016, early 2017," Qattan said. But he offered no hints about what the museum's first exhibit might be.

The crowd at today's opening showcased a who's who of the Palestinian business elite; it was a veritable society event, with a smattering of journalists and young people.

"We hope that this project will make this country better and it will be something tourists come to see our Palestine and our traditions," said Dana, who arrived from Nablus to attend the opening.

While tourists who make it to the West Bank may visit, many Palestinians will never set foot inside the museum.

"This is a place for everybody to enjoy. Every Palestinian is mentioned here. Every Palestinian can see his land from this beautiful location," said Mazen Karem, a Palestinian engineer who also attended the opening.

But not quite everybody. And certainly not every Palestinian. Some 6 million Palestinians live outside the occupied territories and Israel, and those in Gaza or Lebanon, for example, may never have the chance to visit the West Bank or a museum intended to unify them and celebrate their history.

Cutting the ribbon and delivering a brief speech, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said the museum "will be the keeper of all Palestinian memories." He urged Palestinians in the diaspora to come back and invest in their country.

"These are the institutions of a future state," he said, looking toward the empty exhibition hall.

The small crowd gave the 81-year-old leader an uncharacteristically boisterous round of applause.