Jerusalem’s Nature Museum is quintessential Jerusalem: an wrought iron gate flanked by stone pillars, left slightly ajar, a magical garden fallen into disrepair, and a quirky collection housed in a 19th century Ottoman stone structure in the heart of the city’s German Colony. Originally built as the summer home of a Arab or Armenian efendi, the building — which seems to have been called Villa Deccan, according to maps from the period — was surrounded by trees, greenery and, beyond the stone gates — agricultural fields.
At the turn of the century the house was turned over to the Turks, and used by the Turkish Governor. Following World War I the building was used by British High Commissioner, and later became an officer’s club. The building and courtyard were abandoned after the War of Independence.
The building became a center for nature studies in the 1950s and The Natural History Museum in Jerusalem opened its doors to the public in 1962.
Exhibitions cover various subjects in the field of natural sciences, with a strong emphasis on the wildlife of Israel, past and present. Especially prominent are the exhibits of birds and mammals of Israel. The human body is also presented in detail, illustrating the cardiovascular, circulatory, respiratory, nervous, reproductive, digestive, skeletal and muscular systems.
The exhibits include panels, mounted animals, models and dioramas. Special exhibits include a stuffed two-headed calf and a 3D spider display. In addition to the permanent collection, there are temporary exhibits, films, lectures and classes, indoor and outdoor hands-on activities and summer camps for kids.
On the grounds of the Nature Museum is a sculpture garden — one comes across the dinosaur sculptures quite unexpectedly — and a recent addition: a community garden. The original garden was planned by landscape architect Yehiel Segal, who also designed the Gan Meir and Bialik House gardens in Tel Aviv, the grove at the Mount Scopus Campus of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the Baron Edmond de Rothschild gardens in Rishon LeZion and many other public spaces.
Segal planned the Nature Museum garden along the lines of an English country garden and using local plants and trees. Today, it’s a shabby shadow of its former kempt self but changes are afoot: a few weeks ago, workmen with heavy machinery came in and began digging up the dirt parking lot adjacent to the Museum. (Why they are digging are unclear but in such cases in Israel, it is best to refer to the film, The Blaumilch Canal).
Moreover, in 2012, the Israeli Architects Association held a competition to design a new Natural History Museum on Givat Ram, adjacent to the Knesset grounds. First prize was won by S.O. Artchitecture (Shachar Lulav and Oded Rozenkier) together with architect Gabby Schwartz. Archdaily said the design approach “emphasizes a desire to create an open, absorbent, breathing building – the type of building that communicates with the environment, and not a closed structure with fences and a guard.”
Sort of like the way the old building is today.
Guided or assisted tours at the Jerusalem Nature Museum are available for groups of all ages. Reservations must be made in advance.