From the Ashes, a Jewish Museum

By Klein, Julia M. | The American Prospect, February 12, 2001 | Go to article overview

From the Ashes, a Jewish Museum


Klein, Julia M., The American Prospect


Like a streak of lightning or an unraveling Star of David, the Jewish Museum Berlin zigzags through the city's Kreuzberg section, just steps away from graffiti-covered storefronts and boxy, high-rise public housing. Clad in zinc, its facade broken with irregular slashes of glass, it gleams like a spaceship plopped down in an alien landscape.

Thanks both to its wondrous incongruity and its emotional impact, Daniel Libeskind's empty, award-winning building has become one of the new German capital's chief tourist magnets, attracting about 350,000 visitors since its completion two years ago. One day last fall, while a policeman watched for terrorists, I observed visitors wandering the grounds and happily snapping photographs. The crowds were sure to multiply when the museum opened for business. But would they be equally enthusiastic about what they saw inside?

The $87-million museum has had a tumultuous history. Conceived in the 1970s as an extension of the Berlin City Museum, the Jewish Museum Berlin is now an independent institution run by the German government. With an American director and a New Zealander supervising the contents, the museum plans to unveil a permanent exhibition--tracing the history of Jews in Germany from Roman times through the present--in September 2001.

Normally, it takes about five years to mount an exhibition of such scope, museum staffers say, but political pressures have compressed the development of this one into 18 months. "Some of us were really skeptical about whether we could manage that," says Thomas Friedrich, head of exhibition research. "I still have my moments of doubt."

Extraordinary time constraints are not the only problem. The museum's central challenge is to create a show that is both intellectually serious and appealing to diverse audiences. The task in this case is complicated by the museum's subject matter and its location in the heart of the former Third Reich. However slick or serious the presentation, can the sons and daughters of Nazi victims and the sons and daughters of Nazi perpetrators truly find common ground here?

Both the museum's director, W. Michael Blumenthal, a former U.S. Treasury secretary whose prominent German-Jewish family fled Berlin in 1939 for Shanghai, and Ken Gorbey, the non-Jewish New Zealander Blumenthal hired to be the museum's project director, are adamant about one point: Theirs is not a Holocaust museum. Even the exhibition's section on the Holocaust will concentrate not on its horrors but on Jewish responses. "We don't want to ignore the concept of perpetration, but to visit a guilt trip upon the German people is not the primary objective of this museum," Gorbey says. Eva Soderman, a museum spokeswoman, underscores that the museum is determined not to read German-Jewish history through the lens of the Holocaust.

But how can it not? The shadow of the Shoah, as the project director concedes, hangs over the institution and is sure to shape visitors' reactions. Not least, there is the building itself, a symbolic narrative of the impact of the Holocaust on German Jewry. With its sloping floors and dead-end pathways explicitly designed to promote discomfort, its Garden of Exile, its Holocaust Tower, and its architectural "voids," it will surely function as a memorial to loss, even if the museum's permanent exhibition reflects other emphases. Critics have even suggested that the structure be left empty--a notion that Libeskind himself has rejected. Gorbey says that the exhibition will complement the architecture, in part by creating a "gallery of the missing" that commemorates the destruction of Jewish cultural property.

The Jewish Museum belongs to a troika of new projects designed to fill out Berlin's already crowded memorial landscape. A monument to the murdered Jews of Europe--a vast field of slabs, along with an underground information center--will be built starting this fall. Construction of the Topography of Terror, a museum focusing on Nazi perpetrators that is sited where the Gestapo and SS headquarters once stood, has been stalled by spiraling cost estimates. …

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