For a region with an international reputation for its history and natural wonders, the Middle East has a notable lack of museums showcasing them. This fall, Israel is setting out to change that: Visitors will be able to see some of the earliest human fossils, whale skeletons and rare birds on display in what will be the Middle East’s first natural history museum.
Israel’s Steinhardt Museum of Natural History will let the public feast its eyes on over 5 million specimens from collections that were previously the exclusive purview of scholars at Tel Aviv University: the National Herbarium, the Zoological Museum and the Biological Anthropology Museum. Objects scattered across multiple buildings and 10 different spots on the campus will be assembled into the single 100,000-square-foot museum space, shaped like an ark.
In addition to drawing visitors from around the world for its cultural and religious artifacts, this region has an unparalleled wealth of natural history, both ancient and modern. “The Middle East is a lacuna in terms of knowledge in biodiversity and natural history collections,” says Tamar Dayan, a professor of mammalogy at Tel Aviv University and the chair of the museum. “We think there’s an international community who want to know what happens here.”
Israel is also a poetically ideal spot for a museum that will examine Earth’s natural past—and humankind’s role in shaping it—to promote a more harmonious future.
After all, the country is the hub of the world’s earliest civilizations. It’s at or near the birthplace of three major religions—Judaism, Christianity and Islam—and home to dozens of the most valuable relics of prehistory. In the realm of human evolution, Israel is where the world’s oldest Homo sapiens fossils outside of Africa were found, including the Skhul cave skull (dated to 90,000 years ago) and the Manot cave skull (from between 50,000 and 60,000 years ago).
Equally exciting to archaeologists is the fact that, living right alongside these anatomically modern humans, were another species of hominin: Neanderthals. Israel is the farthest south Neanderthal skeletons have ever been discovered.
These kinds of remarkable finds have already been invaluable to university researchers conducting studies on human evolution; a 2016 study claiming Neanderthal anatomy was the result of their meat-heavy diet used research from specimens like “Moshe,” the most complete Neanderthal skeleton to date, found in a limestone cave in northwestern Israel.
The museum’s founders hope that consolidating and organizing the collections will make it a magnet for scientists far beyond Israel. In the past decade, the number of scientists coming from around the world to use the collection has mushroomed from around 150 a year to as many as 500. With the new organization in the museum, the collections will be more accessible for scientists around the region as well as for Israeli government agencies who conduct research into agriculture and the spread of invasive species.
Also in the museum is an exhibit on biodiversity that explores how modern humans continue shaping the Eastern Mediterranean, which Dayan describes as “the fastest changing habitat on Earth.”
The Mediterranean is a biodiversity hotspot, home to approximately 17,000 different species despite accounting for less than 1 percent of the ocean’s surface area. But today, manmade vessels competing with the fish for space: a whopping 30 percent of global maritime traffic passes through the region, specifically in the Suez Canal. The 220,000 vessels larger than 100 tons each (think shipping freighters and oil tankers) are responsible for discharging some 250,000 tons of oil annually, according to a study by the European Environment Agency.
And that’s not even taking into account massive overfishing, wastewater management, climate change and “the constant flow of organisms and pollution from the Red Sea to the Eastern Mediterranean, from plastic bags to oil and gas drilling,” says Dayan.
Still, Dayan says that the museum’s role is to be informational rather than judgmental. “We want to encourage people and pique their curiosity to want to be good scientists or just good citizens. We want children and adults to know and cherish the nature of Israel, to understand the human impact on the environment.” Connecting Israelis with their natural surroundings is an especially important goal, since 92 percent of the country’s 8.38 million residents live in urban centers, according to data from the World Bank.
Collections managers have long known that the many separate collections housed in various bases around Tel Aviv University’s campus needed better organization. Unlike public museums in the United States—like the Smithsonians in Washington, DC, the American Museum of Natural History in New York and the Field Museum in Chicago—the Steinhardt Museum will still be affiliated with and operated by Tel Aviv University. It’s a model based on Scandinavian museums, Dayan says, and its role is to provide access for university researchers and government agencies as well as the public.
In addition to needing a better-organized collection, managers were concerned about the future survival of the artifacts. The invertebrate collection is currently stored under sewage pipes. Wet collections preserved in flammable liquids are housed in buildings that don’t have appropriate fire prevention systems. Specimen cabinets stand in the hallways of the university; some of them don’t even have locks. Dayan says it’s thanks to the hard work of university professors and employees that nothing has been lost yet.
“There’s pest risks, environmental conditions, security risks, things like natural disasters, and here there’s unnatural disasters because of the uncertainty of the region,” says David Furth, an entomologist with Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History and a museum advisor at the Steinhardt. Furth has been traveling to Israel since 2011 to train the researchers in collections management. The arduous months-long trips and 10-hour days can be grueling; he describes it as being “in the trenches”—on the frontlines of conservation, the work mostly remains invisible to the public.
Over the course of five months, he’s overseen everything from moving samples into new containers to answering questions about displaying a cheetah video and a whale skeleton. But when you’re building the nation’s first natural history museum, every detail is important. “There’s no shortage of things to do in the collection,” Furth says.
Dayan agrees. “We should play a key role in society,” she says of the museum and the research that might come out of its collections. “It’s a huge privilege, scientists feeling they have a role. More than ever today, with the challenges our planet faces, we have a need for public discussion.”
Editor's note, July 13, 2017: The article previously misstated the size of the museum as 86,000 square feet.