New Herzl Museum tells story of man behind Zionist dream

JERUSALEM — Four young actors and actresses are giving the play its first read-through. Professional though they are, they repeatedly stumble over words unfamiliar to them — Dreyfuss, Der Judenstaat, Altneuland, Basle.

"What!" exclaims their director. "You don't know these words? You don't know the story? How can you act without knowing the story? Hold the rehearsal! Sit down and listen to me."

This filmed scene, shown in a recreated backstage, forms the entrance to the new Herzl Museum that opens this summer on Jerusalem's Mount Herzl.

"With streets, buildings and schools all over Israel named for Theodor Herzl, his picture on our currency and his tomb where we launch our Independence Day celebrations each year, Herzl's name is known to all Israelis," says Orit Shaham-Gover, designer of the new museum and its chief curator. "But beyond that, not many people now know much about him. The idea of the museum is to bring him to life, with all his passions and beliefs, achievements and failures."

Shaham-Gover is designer and developer of a dozen museums in Israel. Selected for the Herzl Museum by the Jerusalem Foundation, World Zionist Organization and Israel Ministry of Education, Culture and Sport, who are jointly funding the $2,200,000 project, she was given 1,350 square feet on the upper story of the Mount Herzl building near Herzl's tomb, and a mandate to sharpen the awareness of both Israelis and tourists of the Zionist vision and the state of Israel today

Shaham-Gover has developed the concept of the young actors and their stage director, something especially relevant as Herzl was, in fact, himself a frustrated playwright. From the 'rehearsal scene' at the museum entrance, Shaham-Gover, together with film producer and scriptwriter Udi Armoni, has created an exhibit that moves visitors by sound, light and story through four rooms that show Herzl's impact in the international arena, along with his personal and political struggles.

"To tell the story of Herzl as Zionist leader successfully, we must bring him to life in the 45 to 60 minutes that visitors spend in the museum," says Shaham-Gover. "We're not teaching history. Visitors can open a book when they get home. While they're in the museum, we must touch their souls."

Once Shaham-Gover developed the idea of the director as storyteller, the rest of the museum grew around it. From the 'backstage' entrance, visitors will move into the first of the four exhibition rooms. This is Vienna, where Herzl lived most of his life. It will show flashbacks to his family and his university days, and enable visitors to experience the atmosphere and culture in which he was raised.

The second room is Paris of the Dreyfuss Trial. Among its displays will be first editions in dozens of languages of "Der Judenstaat," a runaway bestseller.

Room three is Basle of the First Zionist Congress.

Room four will be Herzl's original study, which will now have meaning to visitors, according to Shaham-Gover. It was here that Herzl wrote his books and articles, and kept the souvenirs of his Zionist efforts, including five boxes from the Turkish Sultan. Documentary and other films shown on its walls will depict Herzl's troubled and ultimately unsuccessful efforts to gain world acceptance for a Jewish nation from Germany, Austria and the Turkish Sultan, as well as his visit to Palestine and the Uganda proposal.

"Visitors will be guided by the 'director' through the entire museum," says Shaham-Gover, "and Herzl will be presented as he was — human rather than larger than life. People don't identify with a larger-than-life figure, and his story is sufficiently exciting without embellishment. It's the story of a man who woke up one morning and decided that an ancient state must be reborn."

In the final part of the museum, visitors will meet up with the four young actors again as they perform their play, "Altneuland-Utopia." With them, they will compare Herzl's utopian vision with today's reality.