During a visit to Palestine in 1925, James Henry Breasted of the Oriental Institute in Chicago noted the lack of a proper archaeological museum in Jerusalem. Though the Department of Antiquities boasted a modest display, it did not include the majority of the important finds that had come to light in recent years.
High Commissioner Sir John Chancellor speaking at the cornerstone ceremony on June 19, 1930
The final plan
Upon his return to the United States, Breasted approached philanthropist John David Rockefeller, Jr. and persuaded him to donate two million dollars toward the construction and maintenance of an archaeological museum in Jerusalem. Shortly thereafter, the 32-dunam plot of Karm el-Sheikh was purchased from the al-Halili family. The chief architect of the Mandatory Department of Public Works, Austen St. Barbe Harrison, was entrusted with the design of the new museum. The Italian firm De Farro was put in charge of construction.
Construction of the dome using traditional local building techniques
The library under construction
The cornerstone of the Palestine Archaeological Museum, commonly called the Rockefeller Museum, was laid on June 19, 1930 in the presence of the British High Commissioner, Sir John Chancellor, but construction was delayed for another three years due to the discovery of ancient graves on the site and the search for a suitable type of building stone (ultimately quarried near Shechem and along the route to Jericho). Despite the fact that the building was completed in 1935, the Museum only opened its doors to the public on January 13, 1938. The official ceremony that had been scheduled to take place two days earlier was cancelled, owing to the murder of British archaeologist G. L. Starkey, who had been attacked by fellahin en route to the festivities. Around the Museum, olive trees from the vicinity of Bethlehem (between 50 and 100 years old), as well other indigenous flora, were planted.
A large number of tombs dating from Hellenistic through Byzantine times were uncovered at the site. Some of the funerary gifts found in the tombs, among them pottery, coins, and jewelry, are exhibited in the Museum.
This exhibition hall was built over the area where most of the tombs were found.