BERLIN — There may be worse Jewish museums in the world than the Jüdisches Museum Berlin, which opened in 2001. But it is difficult to imagine that any could be as uninspiring and banal, particularly given its pedigree and promise. Has any other Jewish museum been more celebrated or its new building (designed by Daniel Libeskind) so widely hailed? Is any other Jewish museum of more symbolic importance? [. . .]
The resulting strain is almost bipolar, with the building aggressively screaming about apocalypse as its exhibition affirms harmonious universalism, with neither making its case.
The building, for example, proposes that the shattered, fractured world of the Holocaust is best suggested by shattered, fractured space. You enter the exhibition by descending a lobby staircase that leads into a world of skewed geometry. The floors are raked and tilted. Displays are off-kilter. And rather than feeling something profound, you almost expect moving platforms and leaping ghosts, as in an amusement park’s house of horrors.
Add to this a sheen of pretense. One corridor is called the Axis of Exile, because along it are the personal effects of Jews who fled Germany during the 1930s. Another is named the Axis of the Holocaust, which shows letters and photographs of murdered Jews. And lest it all look too bleak, an Axis of Continuity leads upstairs, where you learn about where all of this fits into 2,000 years of German Jewish history.Meanwhile, the items on display are so cursorily identified and their owners so obliquely described that they might as well have been anonymous points on an Axis of Victimhood. The space trivializes history rather than revealing it.
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Rothstein criticizes the architecture, with its axis of exile, etc, but he does not really go into the development of the concept behind them. OK, it may seem (and be) pretentious, at least in hindsight, but during the development phase, in the 1990s, it made bold new statements that touched chords and made them resolate loudly. I remember visiting the partly complete building in something like 1997 and feeling the power of the structure -- indeed, it became a major attraction in itself, both before completion and after completion, before the exhibition was installed. Books were written on it. My friend, the Berlin artist Joachim Seinfeld guided hundreds of tours to the empty building.
The exhibition concept and layout has been problematic since the beginning; at first it was so overcrowded with objects it seemed hard to breathe. These were weeded out, but the difficulty of mounting the installations in the weird space remained a constant. Already in 2003 I was on a panel at the annual meeting of the Association of European Jewish Museums that among other things offers critiques.
I thought I'd take a look at what the Times said in earlier articles about the museum.
Michael Kimmelman, in 2004, was just as critical as Rothstein of the museum, but he put a lot of its problems into more context, focusing in part on how Daniel Libeskind's widely-acclaimed design created difficulties of its own.
The building was opened with nothing in it in 1999. Nearly 350,000 people came to see it before any exhibition was installed. Many writers speculated about whether it might best be left empty, as a Holocaust memorial sculpture, not least because it looked nearly impossible to fill coherently with objects. It has been. Sloping grades, crooked passageways, dead ends, tall voids and other willful spaces were explained by Mr. Libeskind and then by others as architectural metaphors for the fate of Germany's Jews, for their difficult journey through history. [. . . ]
Stories of individual Jews, many of them of women, humanize the exhibition. They are told about different sorts of people, not only about artists and writers; the museum thereby sidesteps the stereotype of Jews as people of culture, which, while flattering, may imply that the life or death of a Jewish banker or street peddler is less worth honoring.
But over all the architecture and the exhibition trivialize and overwhelm history. The museum panders to the sort of audience of middlebrow Germans and tourists who don't know any real, live Jews, watering down and sweetening up the past. Even pared back from the 3,900 objects it had at the opening, the exhibition is a smorgasbord of tidbits. Visitors graze. Here are the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn's glasses next to recipes for kosher food; there is a display about medicine next to one about Jews being burned.
Mr. Libeskind's building posed obvious practical hurdles, but the installation is its own inchoate maze of added nooks and crannies, platforms, stairs and partitions, stuffed with gadgets and gimmicks. You can put on a backpack as heavy as a peddler wore. You can peel open a giant sculpture of a garlic. You can mint a coin. You can participate in computerized straw polls.
At article about its opening, in September 2001, puts the conceptual aspect in the foreground.
But while the museum is devoted to a fine, carefully planned exhibit of the full range of Jewish life here, from the arts to the ordinary, it lives in an extraordinary building, designed by Daniel Libeskind, that is itself a sculpture on the theme of the Holocaust. It is a deconstructed, riven Star of David, full of slashing windows and sharp angles, twisting corridors and tilting floors, rough cement and tall, cold empty voids, that bring to a visitor the dizziness and horror of absence, loss, dislocation and loneliness. [. . . ]
A visitor enters this building from an airy, light hall, but is directed down, along a twisted black metal staircase lined by grills at odd angles.
There are three ''underground roads,'' in Mr. Libeskind's conception. The first and longest leads to the main stairs, which rise to the exhibition floors about Jewish life here since Roman times. The second leads outdoors, to a ''Garden of Exile,'' representing the forced emigration of Germany's Jews, with angled pillars topped by willow oaks and cobbled walkways tilted to produce a kind of nausea.
The third leads, Mr. Libeskind wrote, ''to a dead end -- the Holocaust Void,'' called the Holocaust Tower. Here, a large, forbidding, empty space rises up the full height of the building and ends at an acute angle.
Another void, devoted to memory, has a compelling sculpture by an Israeli, Menashe Kadishman, called ''Fallen Leaves.'' Much of the floor is filled with thousands of rusted steel faces, some large and some tiny, most of them open-mouthed and screaming.