Jewish Journal

Milken Institute brainstorms funding for Israel heritage sites

by Michele chabin, Contributing Writer

Posted on Mar. 22, 2011 at 6:27 pm

The amphitheater at Caesarea.

The amphitheater at Caesarea.

Jerusalem — It’s one thing to unearth ancient artifacts, remnants of glorious past civilizations; it’s another thing to pay for their excavation, maintenance and conservation.

That’s long been the challenge for Israel — and other nations with historically deep roots — whose archaeological and other heritage sites far outnumber the financial means to support them.

The Milken Institute, a Santa Monica-based economic think tank, has come up with a plan to alleviate the problem. Its recent report, “Cultural Heritage as an Economic Development Resource in Israel,” says the kinds of start-up financing models used in the private economic sphere “could not only help preserve and protect” the country’s 30,000 identified archaeological sites, “but also provide local and national economic growth.”

The outgrowth of a Milken “Financial Innovations Lab” that brought together three dozen researchers, policymakers and professionals, the report notes that the entire 2008 budget for the Israel Antiquities Authority was a mere $36 million.

Even worse, Israel’s Nature and Parks Authority, which maintains the sites once they are excavated, received just $4 million in 2009 to spend on site development.

Without assigning blame, the authors call these sums “woefully low,” given that archaeology “is arguably one of the country’s most valuable asset pools.” Today, they say, two-thirds of Israel’s 64 developed archaeological sites operate “in the red.”

This despite the fact that, a year ago, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced the creation of a $100 million National Heritage Infrastructure Plan to renovate 150 biblical and archaeological sites over a five-year period.

The authors propose a number of funding models, most involving some sort of private investment.

One option is community micro-financing that would leverage loans and donations to finance local heritage sites. Another option: venture capital funding that links archaeological conservation with the tourism, small business and retail industries.

The authors also recommend the sale of low-risk archaeological development bonds to provide long-term project financing. Funding could come from antiquity leasing, media content, intellectual property, artisan crafts and replica merchandise.

In an interview with the Jewish Journal in Jerusalem, Glenn Yago, Milken’s director of capital studies and the report’s co-author, said a handful of Israeli archeological sites and attractions, such as Masada, are already self-sustaining, even profitable.

“The Dead Sea Scrolls generate a great deal of income,” Yago said, noting that, like the King Tut artifacts housed in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, the scrolls generate income through visitor entry fees to the Israel Museum, touring exhibitions, reprints and documentaries, to name a few.

Yago gave especially high marks to the city of Rome’s award-winning Rome Reborn Project, a three-dimensional virtual tour of ancient Rome that is, by all accounts, a great success. It was developed by academics at UCLA and other universities.

Bernard Frischer, who spearheaded the project, said the initial funding came from “some enlightened philanthropists in Los Angeles, especially our first sponsor, Kirk Mathews and the Creative Kids Education Foundation.”

Intel, Microsoft, Alitalia, Google and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation also have been among its sponsors. Today the model is commercialized, and the company responsible has borne development costs, Frischer said from Rome.

Today, a Rome-based company uses the 3-D film in a theater near the Colosseum. Another company is developing an iPhone app so tourists can get information as they walk around the city. Several game companies are considering the use of  Rome Reborn’s model.

“Here, archaeology created an enormous amount of value,” Yago said. “Intellectual property became commercialized into an array of products that became income-producing properties.

Yago said Rome Reborn has generated “a tremendous amount” of income via tourism; video game development;  movies; education; and products and services relating to Rome Reborn.

A Jerusalem Reborn project, which would depict the city in the time of the Second Temple, is being developed.

“All that’s missing is financial support,” Frischer said.

There are many places the money for Jerusalem Reborn and other projects could come from, Yago said.  

“Private investors don’t have to be venture capitalists. They can be churches, museums, foundations. Restaurants, boutique shops. Something that employs people.”

At the ancient city Caesarea, for example, the wondrous archaeological ruins, including a Roman amphitheater that hosts concerts, is one part of a larger complex of beachfront restaurants and one-of-a-kind shops. There’s also an immaculate little beach, which charges a small fee.  

Yago believes hundreds, even thousands of Israeli cultural sites have commercial potential.  For one thing, he would like to see the Judean Desert, the scene of so many biblical events and the home of several monasteries, developed into a major pilgrimage route.

“There is a huge cultural heritage right outside Jerusalem,” Yago noted. “All three monotheistic religions have roots in the Judean wilderness.”

While he wishes he had the resources to develop and conserve many more sites, Yosi Bordovitch, northern regional head of the Parks Authority, expressed concern that private investment could harm national treasures.

“True, we don’t have enough money, but there’s an ethical question. It’s a question of where to draw limits. These sites belong to the nation and people of Israel. “

Today, private businesses are prohibited from operating in sites run by the Parks Authority, Bordovitch emphasized.

“On the top of Masada, you can’t buy a bottle of water,” he noted. “Instead, there are water faucets.”

At the base of Masada, however, there is a youth hostel, a restaurant and a museum.

“Hundreds of thousands of people visit Masada every year, and you must give them some services,” Bordovitch said.

The parks administrator said he would not rule out private investment to preserve Israel’s cultural heritage.

“It all depends on what each side will receive in return. If the heritage sites are protected and people receive something they can enjoy, in a good way, then I’m in,” Bordovitch said.

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