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Palestine at the Jewish Historical Museum

18 January 2009 – The Jewish Historical Museum (JHM) is displaying a collection of hand-coloured lantern slides painting an idyllic picture of Palestine in the beginning of the twentieth century. Both the photos and their origin are intriguing.

The photos were taken by the American Colony, a utopian community founded in 1881 by American Christians who had been expelled for heresy by the Presbyterian Church. They were later joined by Swedes. The members of the community managed to gain the trust of Muslims, Jews and Christians alike.

In addition to their charitable work, they took photos and sold them to tourists. Among them was the Speelman couple, who visited Palestine in 1926 and 1931 and bought over a thousand slides. Back in the Netherlands, they organised evangelical ‘Palestine evenings’ at which they showed the slides. These slides are now in the collection of the JHM.

The Colony photographers developed a technique which involved printing the negatives of photos on a glass plate, hand-colouring them and then applying a second glass plate.

The subjects of their photos include a Bethlehem Christmas celebration; Bedouins sporting their rifles and swords; attempts to deal with a locust plague; old men smoking water pipes and a lot of donkeys and camels.

The photos are fascinating, but unfortunately some of the enlarged prints in the exhibition look a bit smudgy. Interestingly, some American Colony photos of the JHM were recently on display in an exhibition at the Tropenmuseum which described history of the region from a Palestinian perspective.

The American Colony ceased to exist as a religious community by the end of the 1940s. Their home in Jerusalem was converted into the American Colony Hotel, which was to be the location of secret peace talks between Israel and the PLO in the early 1990s.

Image: Jewish women at the wailing wall, ca. 1915. The American Colony Photographers / JHM.

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