In order to culturally cleanse ourselves from a 3-day-Netflix binge (Christmas is not a big deal in my household), we decided to take a trip to the Jewish Museum on boxing day. I’ve often passed the remarkable building on Lindenstraße, wondering what it would be like on the inside.
As everyone already knows: I am not a big fan of museums. I like to immerse myself in history, but not necessarily by watching immobile items and their prolonged death in glass caskets. That said, the Jewish Museum is much more than just a display of historical artifacts: it’s a highly sensual experience of history in context of art.
The breath-taking architecture of the Jewish Museum Berlin
The American architect Daniel Libeskind created an overwhelming building (an addition to the old building) for the Jewish Museum Berlin. It’s a gigantic complex of titanium steel, stretching in confusing ways through the junction between Kreuzberg and Mitte, alienating the passers-by, looking displaced itself. A spaceship that bears no resemblance to the dusty museum standards.
With his “Between the Lines” design, American architect Daniel Libeskind did not want simply to design a museum building, but to recount German-Jewish history. Even before the Jewish Museum Berlin opened in the fall of 2001, almost 350,000 people had toured the empty building, which continues to fascinate innumerable guests from Germany and abroad. (JMB)
Libeskind is known for his disruptive, geometrically impossible and sensually disorienting designs. The Jewish Museum profits a lot from the aesthetic experience of his work: it makes a very difficult subject matter – the history and plight of the Jewish people – approachable. Not through a bombardment of facts, but rather, feelings.
He created the Voids, for example. The Voids are little niches and corners of the building that are empty rooms that stand apart from the exhibition. They are bare concrete “voids” without heat or air-conditioning. Only a few of them are accessible.
Libeskind uses the voids to address the physical emptiness that resulted from the expulsion, destruction, and annihilation of Jewish life in the Shoah, which cannot be refilled after the fact. He wanted to make this loss visible and tangible through architecture.
The Garden of Exile, the Holocaust Tower, and the Schalechet installation are other immersive experiences at the Jewish Museum. They all transcend a feeling of grief, loss, disorientation and confusion. Libeskind’s architecture and planning succeeds in delivering a message: there are things that cannot be put into words, images or artifacts. Only an experience can transcend the facts.
The permanent exhibition of the Jewish Museum
Unfortunately, the disorienting, seemingly unsystematic building structure – although helpful as an aesthetic bridge between time and space – is not very forthcoming for the permanent exhibition. Although meant to describe the history of German-Jewish traditions, it kind of falls short on the most interesting facts.
Awkwardly, you have to shuffle back and forth between the indiscernibly changing levels of the museum, and there is literally no visible path to lead you at all. At best, following the exhibition – even with an audio guide – feels like an unplanned trip to IKEA on a Saturday afternoon. At it’s worst, the exhibition is so fragmented that you want to skip it entirely.
And that’s a pity. Even though the architecture is meant do disorient the visitor, it should not come at the cost of education. The Jewish museum is very modern, offering incredible installations and informative gimmicks – videos, audio, etc – , but I felt it needed more stringency and more chronological compactness.
Is it weird that I’m reviewing the Jewish Museum in Berlin as if it were a restaurant? But if it makes it any better, the café in the building is actually pretty fantastic. A+++, would eat again.
Berlin history from a Jewish perspective
History is a tricky thing. It seems to be only interesting when it’s part of one’s identity. But living in Berlin gives you that common ground quite easily. Jewish history is so intertwined with Berlins culture that it’s worth taking a closer look.
Many cultural habits, German words or cross-cultural rituals stem from the unity and mix-and-match of different cultures. Berlin wouldn’t be the same without the influence of the Jewish people, before and after the horrible mid-century episode.
I want to use your attention to share a universal truth with you: Don’t be shitty to each other. If you need to know why, you should definitely visit the Jewish Museum and stand in the Holocaust Tower for a few minutes. Find out for yourself.