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By Julia Dabdoub
President of Arab Women's Union, Bethlehem
Article prepared on the occasion of the ICOM conference held in Amman, Jordan from the 26th – 30th April 1994.
The description in this report of the founding and of the running of "The Old Bethlehem Home" provides an example of the role of women in museum management.
The old Bethlehem Home: a successful women's project
After the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, the Arab Women's Union (a charitable society whose Bethlehem branch was established in 1947) started its Embroidery Centre. The purpose was to provide jobs for the needy women. Jobs are better than charity; they provide the woman with an income as well as self-respect. Embroidery is an area which most women are proficient in as most of the Palestinian women's traditional clothes are embroidered, and there are-s number of villages and Bedouin women who still wear traditional dresses. The project was successful; we sold our products at local exhibitions and the more we sold, the more job opportunities were created. Then we realized that it was necessary to purchase traditional Bethlehem clothes and copy the designs. This was the start of our collection.
In 1970. the ladies of the Women's Union accepted my proposal which suggested the restoration of the ground floor of the Embroidery Centre in order to use it not only to house our embroidery collection, but to exhibit all kinds of items that represent our cultural heritage; the site was ideal as the house is located in the "Old City of Bethlehem", near the Church of Nativity, and Is one of the oldest types of architecture in the town.
The ladies took to the idea, with great enthusiasm. The ground floor was immediately restored, then the campaign with the Bethlehem families was-launched.
We explained our idea of starting a heritage museum to preserve our history. We encouraged the families to donate their traditional belongings to the museum and we promised to exhibit each item with the name of its donator. The response to the campaign was spontaneous; old treasures were unearthed (most of the items had been put away in storerooms or left outside to rot as they were considered old fashioned).
It took us one year to establish the museum; we called it "The Old Bethlehem Home", The items are exhibited in five rooms: the costumes and jewellery room, the living room, the bedroom, the kitchen. and the taboun (the traditional oven) which is located in the courtyard. There are some photographs and a few items in the corridors. We have a good collection of old photographs: we asked 'Some elderly people from Bethlehem who were able to identify the people appearing on those photographs to help us.
In 1983, the curator Anne Saurat was in Palestine restoring the Islamic Museum in AI-Aqsa Mosque. The French consul general at that time, M. Jean Gueguinou, decided that Mrs. Saurat would help us to classify and organize our collection. We also published a booklet about the objects and the photographs in the museum. Mrs. Saurat wrote the text and Father Claudio Barotto, a Franciscan Father, served as consultant. A local translator translated the booklet into Arabic.
In 1984, the "Old Bethlehem Home" was extended. We bought an adjacent old house and had it restored. The sum needed for the restoration was donated by .Mrs. Leila Wilson in memory of her husband who once served as the American Consul in Jerusalem. This new house is one of the few authentic old houses left in Bethlehem. It might be similar to the house in which Jesus was born. The ground floor "Al-Rawya" was the place where sheep and goats were kept. On top of this room is "Al-Sala" or the "all-purpose" room. This room was used as living 'room, sitting room and bedroom. Saint Joseph might have come to Bethlehem and stayed with Mary in such a house; the Virgin would have thus given birth to Jesus in "Al-Rawya" since it was the only private room. Both Father Vesco and Father Benoi of the French Archaeological School in Jerusalem seem to support this hypothesis.Father Benoit had already noticed that the word "kataluma'. which appeared in the translation of St Jerome means a "big room" and not a "hotel"".
In 1992. I donated my forty-year collection of photographs. furniture and works of art to furnish the upper room or "Al-Illiya". The room shows how the people of Bethlehem lived between 1900-1932. I bought my collection either from people who were leaving the country, or from those who wanted "to get rid of their old things" .
"The Old Bethlehem Home" is visited by quite a number of tourists as well as by local people. It is advertised In local hotels. We have a full-time woman employee who shows the visitors around.
We have tried to preserve some of our heritage for our children and grandchildren.
We hope that other women will benefit from our experience and replicate our work.