Here’s something new, a new museum opening in the Palestinian Authority with no mention of “occupation,” “resistance,” “apartheid” or “boycott.” Instead, the new Museum of Natural History in Bethlehem is about, well, natural history. Its mission statement declares the new museum’s dedication to “work to research, educate about, and conserve our natural world, culture and heritage and use knowledge to promote responsible human interactions with our environment.”
The idea of a museum that would research and document local animals came from zoologist Dr. Sana Atallah, who was born in 1943, in Beit Sahour, in Mandatory Palestine, and earned his Ph.D. in 1969 from Connecticut University (his thesis dealt with mammals of the Eastern Mediterranean region). Atallah was killed in 1970, at age 27, in a car accident in Tehran, where he was teaching at Pahlavi University. A subspecies of the local hare, Lepus Capensis Atallahi, was named in his honor in 1972 (although it has been observed in Bahrain and Qatar).
Despite his young age, Atallah had managed to acquire an impressive collection of specimens from Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and Judea and Samaria, which has been spread among several museums. His nephew, Professor Mazin Qumsiyeh, made Dr. Atallah’s dream come true and now serves as the museum’s director. Qumsiyeh, who earned his Ph.D. at Texas Tech University, returned home in 2008, and teaches and does research at Bethlehem and Birzeit Universities.
Working in the heart of one of the most politically explosive communities, Prof. Qumsiyeh notes that “the dismal state of research and development” in the PA must be addressed “by increasing awareness, among all members of society, of the value of collections and of R&D through museums.”
The new museum currently holds more than 6,000 specimens of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and invertebrates. There are also thousands of photographs and other documentary material relating to fauna, flora, and humans in the area. There’s also a physical and digital library with thousands of related books and papers.
“In any society, museums are integral to promotion of science, culture, nature conservation, and education, and are critical for development,” says the new museum’s website. “Having a museum affiliated with an institution of higher education is beneficial because of the essential interactions between people and significant exhibit and research material and the fact that museums can support quality education (both curricular and extracurricular) and thus improve society.”
The PA Museum of Natural History (PMNH) and its Institute of Biodiversity and Sustainability, list their goals as:
“Explore and research the diversity of the fauna, flora, and human ethnography via collections and research.
“Environmental protection and responsible interaction between people and the environment. This includes building environmental awareness and encouraging conservation of natural resources including connecting this to Palestinian heritage.
“Use the knowledge gained and the books and databases and collections to promote science education so that this institute becomes one that helps all segments of society in areas like biology, ecology, technology, archaeology, ethnology etc.
“Cataloging and building a physical and an electronic data base of all animal and plant species existing as well as beginning to catalog and preserve objects/specimens related to natural history and biodiversity (including human diversity and history).
“Develop respect a) for ourselves (self empowerment), b) for our fellow human beings (regardless of background), and c) for all living creatures and our shared earth.”
The Museum is located at Mar Andreas campus of Bethlehem University in Al-Karkafa (not the main campus of Bethlehem University).