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Having read Malu's excellent Op, I thought I'd just write a little piece about my visit to the museum now it is filled with exhibits. This was last December (8 months ago) so things might have changed a bit more now. I, too, had visited the museum when empty of exhibits. I found that experience profoundly moving, and wondered how they would ever display anything in the subterranean corridors. There seemed so little room! The answer is, there aren't that many exhibits actually in those rooms - just small samples of books, identity cards, personal letters home etc which are set into the walls and help to give you a flavour of life as a Jewish person in the war. I felt it was very well done. The holocaust tower was empty again and it was quite a strange experience standing in there with lots of other people - what do you do? No-one wanted to talk - we just stood there, then left again. Strange - and it didn't quite work for me. However, when reaching the main building up the stairs the major set of exhibits began. Rather than being about the Jewish history through the war, they were about the history of the Jews from mediaeval times (possibly before - might have missed that bit!) The museum is obviously an example of a "modern" museum with multimedia this and that - things to touch, press, climb on etc. All good fun, but I felt possibly a little light on factual information (that may say more about me than about the museum!). I was also surprised there was not more space given to the wartime section - it was not that great a portion of the total exhibition. Perhaps, again, in order to remind people like me that the history of the Jews is more than just the holocaust. Anyway, it was all displayed well. The building is quite difficult to navigate (it being built in the shape of a broken Star of David)and the signs on the floor to guide you through were often needed. It was sometimes diff icult to know if you'd seen everything in one section as there were corners, pillars etc to move around. However, the main reason for this was because of the three shafts that go up through the building. The larger of these is filled at the bottom with metal disks with faces cut into them - screaming and painful faces. Very impressive and moving looking down from above, absolutely stunning when you actually find yourself at the bottom of that shaft. The feeling (as I have said in a comment on Malu's op) is akin to that I felt when in the Hall of Remembrance at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. I almost think every non-Jewish person should go and stand there and think of what humanity can do to other humans. My husband and I spent about three hours in the museum, which was long enough really. There are so many things to do in an interactive way, but you get information overload eventually. The things that stood out most to me were the quiet, thoughtful sections rather than the glossy colourful exhibits, as interesting as they were. There is a room where you can interactively play on one of many computers. Didn't get on very well with that - we only played for a few minutes before boredom and information overload set in again! So, overall, what did I think of this museum? I thought it was fantastic empty and fantastic full, although in a different way. I am taking my parents to Berlin with me this Christmas time and will definitely drag them to see it again - I expect it's the sort of place that you can get more out of again and again. Not sure I can remember useful information like entry fees - I think it was about 10 marks (that would be 5 euros, I think) which was excellent value. Security was tight - all baggage was x-rayed and had to be checked into lockers. Photography was allowed within the museum, which was good. Opening times seemed reasonable. There was no guided tour when I went, unfortunately, but th ere are plenty of printed explanations in English, German, French and Russian so there's no problem in understanding what you are seeing. All in all, an excellent museum. And the Gift Shop was pretty good too! As was the cafe.
When I was in Berlin two years ago, I visited a completely empty museum. I wanted to revisit it last week and called the office to ask when there would be guided tours, but was informed that the museum was closed because the permanent exhibition was being prepared. “So it will never be empty again?” I asked, disappointed. The woman in charge tried to console me by saying that she could understand my feelings and she, too, regretted it deeply. A conversation of nuts? No, we belong to a crowd of more than 100.000 people who’ve been to the new Jewish Museum, a.k.a. the Libeskind Building, when it was not yet officially open, partly still a building site, and who were so fascinated by the building itself that they’re afraid the exhibition won’t enhance the fascination, but rather distract from, if not destroy it. How it came about that tourists could visit the building site at all, I don’t know, I don’t know how and when it began, later it was a mouth-to-mouth thing. When I called to ask when I could come, I was told that single visitors weren’t admitted, only groups. I pleaded to be made part of a group, any group, which was accepted. As I came a bit late (I got the wrong information as to where to get off the tube), I don’t know who I went with! THE ARCHITECT Daniel Libeskind was born in Lodz/Poland to the survivors of a Polish Jewish family which was almost decimated in the Holocaust. He studied music in Israel, architecture in New York and the history of architecture in Essex. Since 1989 he has lived in Berlin. To the point of building the Jewish Museum he had never actually built anything, even though he had won several prestigious design competitions. He was known more as an architectural philosopher than a practising architect. His series of drawings for the museum have come to be regarded as masterpieces of process art as well as architectur al design. He is now considered the great “Metaphysicist of Contemporary Architecture” whose building is seen as a sculpture, a work of art in its own right. REFLECTIONS ON BUILDING A JEWISH MUSEUM IN BERLIN More than 170.000 Jews lived in Berlin before the Third Reich, more than 60.000 were murdered, some 80.000 succeeded in finding their way into exile and only about 6.000 survivors lived in Berlin after 1945. How does a city “house” the memory of a people no longer at “home” there? How does a city like Berlin invite the Jews back into its official past after having driven them so murderously from it? How to give voice to an absent Jewish culture without presuming to speak for it? How to bridge an open wound without mending it? How to give a void form without filling it in? The very notion of an ‘autonomous’ Jewish Museum is problematic: the museum wants to show the importance and far-reaching effect of Jewish culture on the city’s history, to give it the prominence it deserves, but many fear dividing German from Jewish history, thus recapitulating the Nazi’s own segregation of Jewish culture from German. THE BUILDING I had seen photos of the museum and looked out for the bright, silvery zinc walls, but when I reached the location I faced a yellow Baroque facade. What a surprise! I’ve learnt that the Jewish Museum is an annex to the Berlin Museum and can only be reached through it. The entrance to the new building is very deep, more than ten metres under the foundation of the Baroque building ‘binding the two together in depth’. From the entrance to the Jewish Museum proper, one is faced with three roads: the road leading to the Holocaust tower, the road leading to the garden, and the road leading to the main circulation stair and the void. The entire plane of the museum is tilted toward the void. T he plane of the ground on which we stand slopes slightly, the walls seem to, but that is an illusion created by the way the windows are put in: the diagonal slant of narrow, turret-like windows, cut at 35-degree angles make us lose our orientation. When I visited the museum a group of dancers practised some kind of modern ballet in the roads, it was an eerie sight. I could see that they had problems keeping their balance while pirouetting and jumping. And the ‘floor’ was still raw concrete! The Holocaust tower can only be entered from inside the building, it is lighted indirectly by natural light that comes through acutely slanted windows up high in the structure, it is completely empty, its subject is what is ‘between the lines’, it’s an architectural model for absence. Strict silence must be kept inside, but it’s not necessary to demand that, everybody IS silent once the door is closed. I’ve used the book by James E. Young ‘Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin’ (with the permission of the author) to write this opinion, he uses the words ‘uncanny’ and ‘uncanniness’, he says that Libeskind has succeeded in embodying the necessary feeling of uncanniness in this building. The only way out of the building is through the ‘Garden of Exile’. It consists of 49 concrete columns, each 7 metres high (a metre is a bit longer than a yard), which are planted with willow oaks that will spread one day over the entire garden into a green canopy overhead. The columns stand at 90-degree angles to the ground plate, but the ground plate itself is tilted at two different angles, so that one stumbles about as if in the dark. ‘We are sheltered in exile, on the one hand, but still somehow thrown off balance by it and disoriented at the same time.’ The exhibition halls are spacious but so irregular in their shapes, cut through by e nclosed voids and concrete trusses, that one never gains a sense of continuous passage. “I have introduced the idea of the void as a physical interference with chronology,” Libeskind has said. “It is the one element of continuity throughout the complex form of the building. It is 27 metres high and runs the entire length of the building, over 150 metres. It is a straight line whose impenetrability forms the central axis. The void is traversed by bridges which connect the various parts of the museum to each other.” Occasionally, a window opens into these voids, and they may be viewed from some 30 bridges, but they are to remain ’unusable space’. Everything is so heavily symbolic that a little incident came as a well needed kind of ‘comic relief’ (students of Shakespeare, you know what I mean!), we were all grateful for it: Looking out of the windows we saw sharp nails, about 10 cm long, sticking out of the window sills, point up. When someone asked the guide what they meant and stood for, she sighed and said that up to then there had always been at least one person in each group who had wanted to know and that obviously the explanation had to be included into the text for the guides: The nails are there to prevent pigeons from sitting on the window sills and doing what pigeons love doing! THE MUSEUM Libeskind: “The straight void line running through the plan violates every space through which it passes, turning otherwise uniform rooms and halls into misshapen anomalies, some too small to hold anything. Instead of merely housing the collection, this building seeks to estrange it from the viewers’ own preconceptions. Such walls and oblique angles will defamiliarize the all-too-familiar ritual objects and historical chronologies, and will cause museum-goers to see into the relations between the Jewish and German departments as if for the first time.” Will I go to the museum again after its opening on September 9th, 2001? Of course, I will, despite what I said at the beginning! I was deeply impressed by the empty museum, but Libeskind didn’t design it as such and I want to see which effects the exhibits have in such surroundings. Maybe my idea that the fascination will dwindle is wrong, maybe it will indeed be enhanced, I’ll find it out when in Berlin the next time (expect an update in two years)! AN APPEAL At its inaugural exhibition the museum will offer insights into German-Jewish life through numerous personal documents and objects. “The intimacy of personal mementos offers visitors the real possibility of identification, which is extremely important for our educational work with young people,” says Gisela Freydank, archivist at the Jewish Museum. “We’re looking for photographs, letters, diplomas, diaries, family trees, photo albums, portraits, identity papers, passports, medals, awards, company brochures and catalogues as well as toys, china, silver, table linens or ceremonial objects - anything which testifies to everyday life and work or to special occasions like family celebrations and holidays. The Jewish Museum in Berlin is asking YOU to pass on this APPEAL to family members, friends and acquaintances. We would also be grateful to be referred to any individuals or institutions whom we might approach.” CONCLUSION I found this appeal on the internet and would like to pass it on to you. Who knows? I hope my opinion gets across the idea that the Jewish Museum is a very special sight from different points of view: from the architectural, historical and educational one. Please see it as an invitation: if you ever have the chance to go to Berlin, try to go and see it. And if there are teachers or students of German among my readers: put the museum on your must-see list when you organize a tour to Berl in!