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'This is your heritage': Jerusalem museum works to engage diverse groups

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JERUSALEM — When 15-year-old Ahmad Mutaseb visited the Terra Sancta Museum in the Old City, it was the first time he had ever seen any archaeological relics from the area.

"I've seen archaeological ruins in Turkey, but this gave me a good feeling. These things are originally from here. I feel connected to them," said Mutaseb, who is Muslim. He visited the museum with a group of high school students participating in a Palestinian summer program aimed at raising awareness of high-tech and entrepreneurial careers.

Monica Valley, head of education and engagement, arranged a tour for the group. Valley, a Pittsburgh native, came to Terra Sancta Museum after 12 years in museum education in New York, in museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Frick Collection.

"That is what Terra Sancta Museum is all about" — community engagement — bringing in the neighbors and residents of the city to enjoy and learn from the museum's collection of centuries-old treasures, many excavated by the friar-archaeologists of the Franciscan Biblical Institute, Valley said.

Valley created a special morning program for the teen group, first focusing on nearly 2,000-year-old artifacts from different jobs and professions — fishing hooks, slingshot ammunition and spearheads, and molds for casting coins. She then presented an art activity in which each participant visually shared what he or she wished to become.

The art was created on a paper that was first folded and cut into a pattern reminiscent of the symmetry of traditional Palestinian embroidery. Then their works were put onto a visitor art collage in an archway of the museum, reflecting the way layers of history and archaeology are found in the Holy Land.

"Students should be able to come to the museum to think, to be creative, and to feel safe — especially when considering their future careers," said Valley.

Located inside the Franciscan Monastery of the Flagellation, at the beginning of the Via Dolorosa, Terra Sancta Museum opened in 2018 and was created inside a more than 2,000-year-old archaeological site containing relics of Herod the Great's Antonia Fortress, an inscription honoring Roman Emperor Hadrian, as well as the bedrock of Jerusalem.

As the student group arrived, Valley told them, as she does with all groups visiting the museum: "There are old things here; there are beautiful things here; there are important things here in this museum. The museum protects these things because they are from this land, and you should know about them. This is your heritage."

In addition to creating a two-year training course in cultural heritage management for a select group of young Palestinians interested in a career in the field, Valley has worked to develop relationships between the museum and various cultural and neighborhood organizations, in order to raise awareness about local cultural heritage.

"The museum is a place where anybody can come to feel inspired, to be creative. It should transcend politics," she said. "At Terra Sancta Museum, we have an incredible opportunity, because of where we are located, to really show everyone what a museum should be in the community: a safe place for expression and empowerment."

Eyad Handal, a Catholic from Bethlehem studying in the cultural heritage management course, said it is important for him to be able to learn how to tell the story of his ancestors through the artifacts at the museum.

"The Franciscans have protected and saved our heritage and history, and that is so great because now we can learn it and share it," he said. "Christians are not so many here, and we are grateful to the friars for having done this job."

Israeli-American Brad Grob said he visits the museum to learn about Jerusalem history. "If you are tied to this land, you know there are many other people and religions who make up the history of this place, and it is important to learn about them," he said. "You can't understand Jewish history without understanding Christian history. You would be missing an important piece of the puzzle."

No visit with teens would be complete without taking selfies and posting the photos on social media, and as the teens wrapped up their morning at the museum, several snapped photos with Valley, typing in her social media contacts on their phones to send her copies.

"This small trip has been so cool and interesting to see what life was like here," said Taleen Sharawneh, 14. "There are so many families living here — Muslim, Christians, Jews."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021