VL Museen

Ausstellungsbesprechung / Review of Exhibition

The Jewish Museum Berlin - A Review

Reviewed by

Susannah Reid, London 
University of Newcastle / UK

E-Mail: <susannahreid@hotmail.com>

This review will look at various aspects of the Jewish Museum Berlin, concentrating mainly on the interaction of the architecture with the museum’s functions and on the exhibitions. It covers visitor orientation, the exhibitions, exhibition design, museum fatigue and the museum’s other functions. The purpose of this review is to examine the degree of success or failure, which both the museum staff and the architect have achieved in these areas to create a modern museum for the public.

1. Introduction

The Jewish Museum Berlin opened on September 9th 2001 amid controversial debate as to the suitability of Daniel Libeskind’s architecture for housing a museum. Originally intended as an extension of the existing Berlin Museum and its Jewish department, the project eventually picked up the momentum to become a Jewish Museum in its own right. As Ken Gorbey, Project Director says, “it’s a classical tale of the architectural tail wagging the political and museological dog” (K. Gorbey, pers. comm., 23.5.2001). Libeskind won the competition only months before the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, after which the project was delayed by a variety of political and financial difficulties.

The building was completed in 1999 and between February of that year and February 2001 over 350,000 people visited the empty structure (Gorbey 2001:48), even paying 8 DM (about £2.75) for the privilege (Blumenthal on http://www.jmberlin.de ). This made it one of the most popular tourist attractions in Berlin (Hooper 2000), despite the fact it contained no exhibits at that time. Many argued that the building should be left empty, as a memorial to those killed in the Holocaust (Phillips 2000:45, Hooper and Connolly 2001, Lockhart-Saatchi 1999:18), although a specific Holocaust memorial in Berlin was also in the process of being built. In Stephen Greenberg’s opinion “the Libeskindbau works as a museum even when it is empty” (Greenberg 1999:24) due to its subject matter, forgetting that a museum by definition includes a collection. The architecture has been condemned by some, who describe it as “a built horror” or as being “like a wounded animal” (Liebs 1999), while others have praised it and it won the German national architecture prize. The public popularity of the building attests to its appeal across social and international boundaries and it has become a common motif on the covers of city guidebooks in the same manner as the Guggenheim Bilbao (Greenberg 1999:24).

2. Visitor Orientation

One of the major problems faced by staff at the Jewish Museum Berlin was overcoming the difficulties in orientation caused by Libeskind’s building in order to make the overall experience beneficial to the visitor. The building was always intended to be confusing and somewhat threatening, as Libeskind felt that this was appropriate to the history of the German Jews. Ken Gorbey confirms this by saying “it’s a very difficult building to take the public through […] because Daniel set out to disorientate and constrain and baffle, and the average museum should set out to do the absolute antithesis” (K. Gorbey, pers. comm., 23.5.2001). The exhibition “Two Millennia of German-Jewish History” takes up two floors and there is a third underground level to the building with the sloping floors so many critics feared would be used throughout.

In order to enter the museum, the visitor has to go to the main entrance of the old building, the Berlin Museum, and then down a flight of steep stairs to the underground level. This level consists of three paths, or axes as Libeskind calls them, each leading to a different conclusion both physically and metaphorically, relating to the ways in which Germany lost its Jewish population during the 20th century. Libeskind designed display cases set into the walls of these axes, which the museum has used not for items from their own collections, but instead as spaces within which to exhibit objects lent or donated by individuals and serve as memorials. These items are often personal mementoes of a close family member or friend who did not survive the Holocaust, such as letters and family photographs or objects left by those in exile, including the five passports issued to Irma Markus in various different countries between 1939 and 1960. At this point the visitor is able to choose his own path, ending either in a garden, an empty tower, or the stairs leading to the exhibitions. Despite signs pointing out the different options, they are not fully explained but only named, as the Axis of Exile and Axis of Holocaust and only the well-prepared visitor would be aware of their architectural significance. The result of this is that visitors have to back track several times in order to see all that the building offers, as well as to visit the exhibition. It is also not clear whether visitors should explore this area before or after seeing the main exhibits on the floors above. An exhibition tour followed by the Axis of Holocaust and ending in the garden of the Axis of Exile might seem the most appropriate and rewarding way in which to realise the full potential of both museum and architecture.

On the exhibition floors, orientation is less of an issue as the narrowness of the building has forced the museum to create a set route for the public. However, any attempts to deviate from this route, for example in order to find the toilets, can result in confusion particularly as such facilities were not adequately signposted. In fact even finding the exit at the end of the exhibition is challenging, as visitors have to double-back on themselves in order to leave the display areas. These issues are something that the staff is aware will need additional attention, particularly during the first year or so. Ken Gorbey states that “the aim is to make it as logical as possible as soon as possible […] perhaps 50% of people will say ‘I’m confused’, but in a year’s time we will be able to say that by training, by signage, better ways of operating we’ll reduce that by half” (K. Gorbey, pers. comm., 23.5.2001).

Each floor is long, narrow and with several zigzagging turns. The galleries are also interspersed by the so-called ‘voids’; empty spaces stretching the full height of the building, into which the visitor can peer at certain points. These voids were part of Libeskind’s architectural symbolism and have been left free of exhibits as “Libeskind moments” (Gorbey in Gessler and Lautenschläger 2001). The exhibition is displayed along a set route, both chronologically and thematically, including areas entitled: Beginnings, Religious Life, Families and Middle Class Life, the Modern Age and Urbanity, Completion and Collapse of Emancipation, and After 1945. Despite statements on the plurality of routes and choices provided by the building, such as six sets of stairs and “any number of direct connections and partial circuits between the floors” (Schneider, B. 1999:58) the exhibition layout now denies visitors the possibility of a “pick and mix” museum visit, in which they would not have to walk through the entire exhibition area. Gorbey is aware of the problems which this creates, saying “it is a comparatively naïve museum in this respect. It did not arise from a pure, a good understanding of visitor behaviour” (K. Gorbey, pers. comm., 23.5.2001). In this sense, it appears Libeskind was more concerned with the overall architectural scheme than museological and visitor requirements.

3. The Exhibitions

As previously stated, the exhibitions in the Jewish Museum Berlin have been divided into themed sections covering German Jewish history in all its breadth. These themes often concentrate on certain events, people or places in their attempt to break up this long history into more manageable chunks for the public, a method which has been criticised in its use at the Jewish Museum as a kind of “name-dropping” - leaving the visitor without any real depth of knowledge (Schwartz 2001:67). The museum attempts to highlight the similarities and the differences between Jewish and German lifestyles, traditions and progression from the Middle Ages to modernity. Picking out individual characters for the visitor to concentrate on is a well-known method of achieving empathy and understanding in an audience, while also making it easier for visitors to take in information effectively. By presenting the information around “human interest” stories such as that of Glikl bas Juda Leib and well-known figures in history, including Moses Mendelssohn, the Jewish Museum not only adheres to modern museum interpretation and education practise but also plays to the strengths of the collection. Despite concerns expressed in Germany that it would be a ‘dumbed-down’ or ‘Disneyfied’ presentation of this complex and often emotionally charged history (Lehnartz on http://www.welt.de , Mueller 2001:17), the museum staff have not wavered from their intention to provide an educational experience for both young and old (Blumenthal and Gorbey in catalogue 2001:17, 18). All labels and text panels are in both English and German, using language levels accessible to children without being patronising to their adult audience. While such labels may not necessarily satisfy those with an extensive prior knowledge of the subject, the staff clearly states that the aim of the museum is to educate and inform primarily young people and family groups with little or no background knowledge in the area (Gorbey 2001:49, Heuwagen 2001).

Many of those critics who visited the museum since it’s opening have expressed the view that the concerns of “Disneyfication” were unfounded (Harpprecht 2001:2 on http://www.zeit.de , Mueller 2001:17), while also praising the resolute didactic style of the museum’s exhibition interpretation and presentation. This "American" (Heuwagen 2001) interpretation style is still unfamiliar in most German museums and galleries, where interest in the visitor experience and museum education tends to be relegated to the sidelines in separate departments, if included in a museum’s structure at all. The more conservative, academic approach to museum interpretation in Germany is what led to the initial fears of “Disneyfication” and some traditionalists still argue that the themed displays and large number of both high and low tech interactives in the Jewish Museum turn the museum experience into something rather childish (Posener and Stein 2001:1 on http://www.welt.de ). Unfortunately during the author’s visit to the museum, almost 90% of the computer interactives were out of order, making any personal judgements on their quality and their influence on the overall visitor experience impossible. Whether the failure of these interactives was due to over-use in the first week of opening, more serious design faults or mere teething troubles was also impossible to assert. Low-tech interactives, such as pull-out drawers, flip up panels etc. are used throughout the museum, however some of these are placed rather high up for children or wheelchair users to be able to enjoy comfortably and the font size of the text was smaller than would have been desirable. One much feted aspect of high-tech used in the museum’s presentation is the so-called “virtual reality” visit to the synagogue in Worms. This is really more of a cinematic presentation of a CAD reconstruction, which however interesting does not actually link particularly effectively with the rest of the exhibition in that area. The presentation has a German voice-over with good explanations, which unfortunately have been reduced to little more than keywords in the English translation. This disappointment is heightened by the fact that the subtitled translation is more often than not so badly mistimed as to appear below completely the wrong image, confusing and frustrating the non-German speaking visitor (and there are many), rather than informing them.

Much criticism of the Jewish Museum Berlin has been directed at the collections, or rather at the perceived lack of them (Schoeps in Christmann 2001:1 on http://www.faz.net ). The fact that a large proportion of the exhibits are loan items either from other museums or private collections, as well as the many replica and reproduction items on display has raised the debate as to the need for a specific Jewish museum rather than a memorial. However, the obvious emotional aspect to German-Jewish history has made this debate rather difficult to conduct objectively. It also seems appropriate that people are made more aware of the destruction of Jewish property and cultural artefacts, which occurred during National Socialism and that those items remaining can be used in order to educate and inform in the museum’s positive and balanced setting. The exhibition designers, Würth and Winderoll, have successfully made this change from a people with artefacts as multifaceted as their culture to the destruction and dissemination of the Holocaust both visible and tangible. The contrast between the confined spaces crammed with artefacts and information at the beginning of the exhibition and the sparse, cold-seeming and bare areas which deal with the Holocaust is stark, whether the design techniques used register with the visitor or not. By using a minimum of exhibits in this area, not only is this sense of human and cultural destruction heightened, but it also avoids reusing the graphic images of concentration camps, to which many people have unfortunately become desensitised. In fact, the more subtle technique of using items close to most people’s everyday lives, such as a letter, a suitcase, etc are probably more effective in breaking down the “us and them” or “then and now” psychological defence barriers which humans inevitably try to create.

4. Exhibition Design

The exhibition design for the 3,000 square metres of display area has been both long awaited and long disputed, with critics eager to see whether the building would overpower the artefacts displayed within it (von Klot 2001:73, Müller 2001:17, Liebs 2001:13, Russell 1999:91, Thurau 2001:47, Schwartz 2001:67). Or as Posener and Stein put it, “whether Daniel Libeskind’s deconstructivist building would deconstruct even the exhibition itself” (Posener and Stein 2001). Many felt that it would be impossible to successfully accommodate any kind of museum with this building, without either the architecture or the exhibitions being compromised (Newhouse 1999:91, Spens 1999:42, Reinhard Rürup in Müller and Raulff 2001:18). In fact, in certain areas the exhibition designers did not even attempt to influence the effect of Libeskind’s architecture (Gorbey 2001:51): the voids for example have been left as purely architectural experiences. As Gorbey says, “we are not about to demolish Libeskind. We are on occasions about to mask Libeskind’s architecture in exhibitions, but more importantly we are about to use and extend some of his concepts, especially around the voids” (K. Gorbey, pers. comm., 23.5.2001).

Artists were commissioned to create installation pieces for some of these voids, in order to strengthen their effect. Libeskind himself described the exhibition areas as “new and flexible spaces […] which in their architecture seek to provide the museum-goer with new insights into the collection” (Libeskind 1990:63). Artist Via Lewandowsky’s “Gallery of the Missing” consists of black glass sculptures which will be placed close by the architectural voids, containing audio descriptions of missing items. Unfortunately this installation was incomplete at the time of visiting the museum. However, the idea of allowing visitors to create their own image of an object through these means does seem an effective means of presenting the loss of cultural artefacts. The other artists commissioned to produce work for the museum were Michael Bielicky and Menashe Kadishman. The latter’s installation “Shalechet” fills the floor space of one void with roughly cut round iron faces whose open mouths and empty eye sockets seem to scream in silent pain. Bielicky’s video sculpture of a large menorah topped with screens in place of lit candles was another victim of the technological problems the museum appears to have had in its opening weeks, which rather limited the impact this piece would otherwise have had.

All those involved readily admit it has been challenging to design exhibitions for Libeskind’s architecture, the designers themselves say it was “the most difficult project we have ever been given” (Würth and Winderoll in Thurau 2001:47). However they all appear to have found this to be a positive experience. In Gorbey’s view, “the building is strongly driven by concept and therefore it is not a perfect museum building, but as an emblematic building that carries a message it is incredibly powerful. Therefore the exhibition spaces are on the one hand totally inadequate - they are cut across by natural light, and they are long and corridor-like [...] But still, it is an incredible exhibition venue - the possibilities inherent in the Libeskind building are amazing. It is one of those cases where the world-class architect doing his thing has created greater opportunity for the museum than had he produced the normal black box” (K. Gorbey, pers. comm., 23.5.2001). Libeskind has been kept informed of the plans for the exhibition design but was not allowed to influence the process despite any objections he may have had to various points (ibid).

The first exhibition area along the visitor route contains artefacts from the Middle Ages which are cluttered together in the narrow space. This was intended to evoke the narrowness of the streets in those days (Würth and Winderoll 2001:9), although such symbolism is not necessarily apparent to the average visitor, who may be more likely to feel claustrophobia than historical empathy. The awkward spaces created by the architecture, such as sharply angled corners, have mostly been utilised effectively, as seating areas or children’s play and learn spaces. The corridor-like nature of much of the exhibition space has caused some problems, for example some artefacts could not be displayed due to lack of space at the relevant point on the route. Presentation of the collection also had to take into account the fact that some ceilings and floors in the building appeared to be slanting, due to the strong diagonal lines of windows, air-conditioning etc. (Schneider, B. 1999:55). However, Libeskind did also provide neutral spaces which do not affect the exhibition design any more than the standard black box museum building. Blumenthal believes that the architecture “provides opportunities to enhance the impact of our exhibition […] and to dramatise it by moving the visitors from a high to a low and back again - from the glorious to the ghastly, and to show the thin line between the two” (Blumenthal on http://www.jmberlin.de ).

In the short time that the museum has been open to the public, critics are already divided on the success and interaction of both architecture and exhibition. Some feel satisfied that the architecture does not overwhelm the exhibited artefacts, while others are still of the opinion that the collection has to “fight against the architecture” (Schoeps in Christmann 2001). However, it is the view of the author that, other than in a few cases, the exhibitions are fully independent of the architecture, and the empty building’s powerful emotional impact has unfortunately largely disappeared. Posener and Stein share this opinion, stating that “the exhibition is victorious over the building…this exhibition could just as well have been presented in any other building” (Posener and Stein 2001).

5. Museum Fatigue

The slashed window openings, often attacked along with the rest of the building as being unsuitable for the display of museum objects (Spens 1999:47), allow in a limited amount of daylight and give visitors the opportunity to look outside and attempt to reorientate themselves geographically (Schneider, B. 1999:56). The voids also play a beneficial role in addressing museum fatigue in that they interrupt the large amount of display areas and provide respite from the fatiguing business of taking in exhibitions. The problem of museum fatigue is an issue which even Gorbey was concerned about (K. Gorbey, pers. comm., 23.5.2001), partly due to the fact that the chronological exhibition structure was already set when he arrived on the scene. He introduced the thematic element to the exhibition plan, and says, “we’ll try to bolster up the high points as much as possible, with plenty of seating and interesting and unexpected approaches. But you’ve still got to climb a lot of stairs or go into a potty little lift and find your way around, cross different parts of the circulation - [so] you’ll get a lot of lost people” (ibid). However, Gorbey considers the architecture to also be an aid in helping to prevent museum fatigue, as visitors will look at it almost as much as at the displays, thereby unconsciously refreshing their eyes and minds. In fact, Libeskind’s aim of “transcending the passive involvement of the viewer” (Libeskind 1990:62) seems to fit well with current museological practice of involving the visitor in order to aid education and prevent fatigue.

The museum’s director, Michael Blumenthal, considers the building and museum together to be a visitor-friendly place, in which the public will feel comfortable as well as learning something (Blumenthal on www.jmberlin.de ). Libeskind also considers this to be important (Rauterberg 2001:32), believing that “a building has a responsibility to transform the context, give it back something more. Not just taking from its surroundings, but also contributing. Enlivening, transforming.” (in Pearman 2001:41). The galleries themselves are architecturally much more neutral than had been feared, with high ceilings and an airy atmosphere, which is a great deal less tiring than the traditional “black box” museum interior which usually houses such thematic exhibitions. The symbolism of the architecture may help to counter museum fatigue by providing visitors with its own liveliness and aesthetic appeal, because “a Libeskind building performs. It sings, it tells stories. It takes you by the elbow and points things out to you. Things you might not have noticed or understood” (Pearman 2001:41). Apart from the orientation problem, other aspects of the architecture appear to address museum fatigue positively. Every gallery is provided with a set of stools which the visitor can move around in order to either look outside, or to examine a display case with greater ease. Comfortable seats with backrests can be found with many of the audio-visual displays and interactives, although it would also be desirable for similar seats to be placed in other gallery areas and near the stairs.

6. Additional Facilities

The top floor of the building houses the offices, workshops and library, and therefore has a greater number of windows to provide the necessary daylight. However, the time lapse between design and completion of the building, and the change in its role mean that there is now too little space for all the museum’s functional needs. The stores are apparently adequate, perhaps not surprisingly given the limited nature of the collection, but an additional off-site facility for other needs is already in use (K. Gorbey, pers. comm., 23.5.2001). The main problem in terms of space is that the original brief estimated a maximum of 150,000 visitors per year, and the current projections of 700,000 mean that public facilities such as toilets will be totally inadequate (K. Gorbey, pers. comm., 23.5.2001).

Although there are lifts for disabled access, they are rather small and not necessarily close to the stairs, giving the impression of segregating those visitors able to use stairs and those not. Various parts of the exhibition are too narrow, reachable only via stairs or placed just too high for wheelchair users to be able to access them successfully. The exterior paving designed by Libeskind consists of uneven bumps and different surfaces, which will also be difficult for both wheelchair users and those with mobility problems to cross safely. The museum shop and restaurant are housed in the old building of the Berlin Museum, perhaps intentionally to keep the commercial aspect of the museum separate from its sensitive subject matter.

The discrepancy in the original and current visitor projections also has a major impact on the services and maintenance needs of the building. The air-conditioning for example, had to be overhauled at some expense in order to cope with the greater numbers of visitors expected (K. Gorbey, pers. comm., 23.5.2001). The building’s concrete floors have also made the supply of services more problematic, as they cannot be brought up through the floor or ceiling, something which Gorbey would prefer to change if he could (ibid). The conservation needs of the artefacts, such as climate control and limited exposure to UV light are factors which Gorbey feels are “a negotiable event, not chiselled in stone” (ibid) and it remains to be seen whether the museum feels it necessary to block some of the windows, or readdress other such problems in the future. The zinc-clad exterior of the building will need overhauling in time, as Gorbey says “it’s been built as an architectural piece, not necessarily the most resilient piece of building technology in the world, so it’s going to cost a lot of money” (ibid). All of these issues relate to the strong aesthetic elements of Libeskind’s design, which although increasing the symbolism of the structure in relation to its purpose, also create problems and increase costs for the museum. Gorbey finds the balance of the architectural and museological values acceptable and he frequently reiterates that the contentious issues can also be beneficial “is it an opportunity or is it a real problem? The answer as in all cases tends to be yes for both” (ibid). Whether this view will stand the tests of time and use remains to be seen.

7. Conclusions

Libeskind’s Jewish Museum has undoubtedly become an iconic museum building, being dubbed “one of the greatest architectural achievements of the past 100 years” (Hooper and Connolly 2001). Despite this, the fact that Libeskind has been called the “master of empty space” (Boyes 2001:22) indicates that his architecture may not necessarily suit its purpose, but rather be a kind of autonomous architectural sculpture. Many feared that this would disadvantage the museum (Liebs 2001:13, Schneider, R. 2000:19). However, an architectural icon as a museum building can also benefit the museum by means of its instant recognisability, in the same way as an advertisement, or marketing message (Borg in Toy 1997:96). It is clear that a number of people have been attracted to other museums, such as the Guggenheims in New York and Bilbao or the Centre Pompidou, due to the architecture being almost a work of art in its own right. While this is not something which architects should aim at to the detriment of the building’s functionality, as an additional aspect of a museum building it can be a beneficial extra. Libeskind contends that he aimed to create a structure that would prevent the museum visitors from becoming nostalgic. Instead he wanted the building to act as a catalyst that would move the public and strengthen their memory and awareness (in Rauterberg 2001:32). The architecture has not had a detrimental effect on the exhibitions presented, as was feared, and it goes some way to addressing the problem of museum fatigue. The difficult orientation created by the building can no doubt be solved by additional signage and perhaps by the creation of a specific orientation area in the basement level. Other issues where the architecture does disadvantage the museum or the visitor are generally due to the changes in the museum’s role, which occurred during its construction. As Philip Johnson says, “typically, the architect designing a new museum seeks to please three different groups of people: the patrons; […] the professional staff; […] and finally the public […] and then there are the collections. Each of the three groups mentioned has a different attitude” (in Coolidge 1989:xi).

Libeskind’s philosophical style of designing buildings (Libeskind 1990:62-77) means that his constructions run the risk of being overly constrained by ideology, but in this case he has successfully created a building which is both an architectural icon and a servant to the museum it houses. The Jewish Museum Berlin shows how working in harmony with the architecture, however challenging or initially controversial this may be, creates a more unified and effective overall result for the museum. It has been said that “it takes three or four people to make a bad museum situation. It takes a curator, a trustee, an architect, and, at least in contemporary shows, an artist” (Alex Katz in Stephens 1986:31). Museum staff must be aware of the issues such an iconic building raises and what it means in respect to the needs of employees, the collection and public, if they are to both “demand an iconic statement and achieve a museological function” (K. Gorbey, pers. comm., 23.5.2001). Had the museum staff, in particular the exhibition planners and designers, attempted to work against Libeskind’s strong architecture, rather than with it, the outcome would probably have been quite different.

Therefore, despite the problems mentioned earlier in this review, such as bad orientation, the failure of interactives and difficulties caused by the building, the overall impression left by the museum is positive. The exhibitions may not satisfy subject specialists or museum traditionalists, however this museum has always stated that it aims to appeal to a broad international audience, which is exactly what it does. The Jewish Museum has listened to the public’s need and desire for museums to be enlightening, interesting and enjoyable, rather than tiring, overly academic and dull. Hopefully, rather than resting on its laurels for too long, it will continue to listen and update itself in the future.

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