Historic Background

Rachel Kudish-Vashdi and Yuval Baruch

Model of the building from the West
Model of the building from the West

The history of the Rockefeller Museum parallels the establishment of the Department of Antiquities by the British Mandate government in 1920 and the development of Archaeology in Eretz-Israel. The British Mandate Department of Antiquities was housed in an old building on Museum Road (today Central Command Street). The building was shared with the British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem, and included a small exhibition hall.


Three archaeological museums existed in Eretz-Israel before the Rockefeller: The Franciscan Biblical Museum built in 1902; The Greek Orthodox Museum, built 1922; and the Islamic Museum on the Temple Mountin built in 1923. However, the first building constructed expressly as a national museum was the Rockefeller Museum – The Palestine Archaeological Museum.  In 1919 Patrick Geddes first suggested the establishment of an antiquities museum in a report on  Jerusalem’s city plan. The site he chose for the museum was at the northeastern corner of the Old City, a location very near to the actual site chosen almost ten years later.


The Mandate Government was interested in such a project, and in 1924 suggested a special “tourism tax” for that purpose. Considering the suggestion for a national museum of antiquities indicated a new direction in British policy: No longer would antiquities be “exported” from their country of origin to European museums, but at least some of the finds that were a part of the national heritage, would be exhibited locally. This new idea was applied in other colonies of the British Empire as well, including those in the Middle East. Centers for archaeological activity were established, with offices for a Department of Antiquities, storerooms and a museum for exhibiting the objects.


During the early 1920’s, several proposals for a national museum were presented to the High Commissioner Herbert Samuel, but all were rejected for lack of funds.

John D. Rockefeller Jr.’s Contribution

In 1925, the prominent American anthropologist and archaeologist, James Henry Breasted of the Chicago Oriental Institute convinced millionaire John D. Rockefeller Jr. to come to the aid of a number of important archaeological projects, amongst others, the excavation at Megiddo. Rockefeller had planned to contribute ten million dollars to a museum and research institute in Cairo, but changed his mind, and instead, suggested to Breasted that he contribute toward a museum and research institute in Jerusalem. In 1926, conditions were agreed upon for the contribution of two million dollars to build and administer a museum in Jerusalem. The conditions of the contribution were drafted by Rockefeller to Lord Plumer, the High Commissioner of the Mandate Government at that time. The contribution was to be divided in two: half the amount, one million dollars, was destined for construction and equipping the building, and the other half was invested in a fund that would finance the operating expenses of the Department and the museum. The contribution was announced in a letter to Lord Plumer, signed by Rockefeller on 13 October 1927

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