From the Ashes, a Jewish Museum

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 Söderman, 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.

All three projects are central to the Federal Republic of Germany's ongoing efforts--not universally acclaimed here--to express its contrition for the Nazi era and establish itself as what the Germans like to call "a normal nation." Blumenthal has said that the Jewish Museum Berlin will make vivid what the country lost in murdering or forcing into exile almost all of its 500,000 Jews. (Today, primarily because of an influx of Russian Jews, Germany's official Jewish population is about 85,000.) The museum's opening will be a victory for memory but also a vindication for those Germans who celebrate "the new Berlin" and the new Germany, distant and detached enough from the past to confront it honestly.

With Germany's image--and self-image--on the line, it is hardly surprising that the museum's exhibition plans have been subject to intense critical scrutiny. The German press has fretted that a high-tech, "visitor friendly" show will turn German-Jewish history into a Disney spectacle. What may be more surprising is that the museum staff, which has been buffeted by turnover, shares these misgivings.

The museum's original creative team included Deputy Director Tom L. Freudenheim, an American museum professional with German-Jewish roots, and consultant Shaike Weinberg, who had helped develop both the Museum of the Diaspora in Tel Aviv and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Weinberg died more than a year ago, and Freudenheim left last June, saying that his expertise in museology and Jewish studies hadn't been appreciated. Earlier, Michael S. Cullen, a Freudenheim ally whose contract as head of research was not renewed, told me he feared that the museum was becoming a "Jewish Titanic."

The ship's captain remains Blumenthal--author of a family memoir called The Invisible Wall: Germans and Jews, a Personal Exploration--who took over as director in December 1997. Fluent, even eloquent in his native German, he managed to win the museum's independence and expand its focus. Commuting to Berlin from his home in Princeton, New Jersey, he is now building a development organization--unusual in Germany, where the arts are publicly funded--and planning festivities for a gala opening.

In April 2000, Blumenthal brought in Gorbey, who'd impressed him as a consultant to the museum. Gorbey's chef d'oeuvre is the extraordinarily popular Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa in Wellington, whose Web site says it's "different from any other museum on the planet," with "state-of-the-art time travel and virtual reality thrills." Gorbey says that Te Papa is a "celebration of New Zealand culture"--and that in Berlin he knows he is dealing with "a history that cannot in reality be celebrated."

Yet in a recent speech, Gorbey emphasized parallels between the two projects, noting that New Zealand had in the past forced the Maori people off their lands in bloody wars. Market research--a Gorbey trademark--showed that New Zealanders were uncomfortable with this chapter in their history. Gorbey said Te Papa did not shy away from presenting it but made this potentially controversial exhibition "the most comfortable place in the museum--full of soft chairs and a place of rest." Plans for the Jewish Museum Berlin, too, promise to provide a "welcoming and safe environment" supported by a highly trained host force.

Last June the Jewish Museum's proposals--including an "academic concept" for its permanent exhibition and a "visitor experience" plan--were submitted to an academic board of advisers and to the museum's board of trustees. They described a largely chronological exhibition that would "present German-Jewish history and culture through the narratives of achievement, persecution, presence and absence, survival and regeneration." The plans were approved, with some modifications. But insiders leaked them to the press, and critics jumped on them.

One target was the museum's marketing orientation. Visitors were referred to as customers, and the museum pledged to achieve an 85 percent "customer satisfaction" rating--surely a jarring way to measure responses to such a complex and tragic story.

In a country where exhibitions still often consist of display cases and voluminous text, proposals for the use of multi-media technologies also provoked ridicule. "Interactive hocus-pocus," scoffed Der Spiegel, a leading newsmagazine. One of the museum's ideas was that visitors, through computer role play, would "have the chance to see if they can survive as a 'U-boat,' [a Jew] underground in Berlin during the war." Another involved a fictional café scene--reminiscent of the one at Los Angeles's Museum of Tolerance--in which German-Jewish scientists Albert Einstein, Fritz Haber, and others would debate "the big issues of assimilation and threat."

Both the café and U-boat proposals have since been scuttled, but other high-tech surprises lie in store. The museum is currently working with the architectural firm Würth and Winderoll, which designed the Haus der Geschichte, an innovative history museum in Bonn. Personal stories, quotidian objects, and traditional display techniques will all be featured, Gorbey says, as will dramatic lighting, immersion environments, computer interactives, and, eventually, a theatrical presentation. Blumenthal, apparently stung by early criticism, has said that the museum is not being designed for "the intellectuals, the historians, or journalistic snobs."

Nigel Cox, a novelist whom Gorbey imported from New Zealand to be "head of visitor experience," says outside critics have been "overreductive" in suggesting a museum's only options are to be traditional or Disneylike. Still, his most daunting opposition may be coming from within the museum's walls. Thomas Friedrich, the head of exhibition research, says that the term "visitor experience" is untranslatable to Germans. He opposed both the "U-boat" interactive ("ridiculous and terrifying," he called it) and the café scene ("naive") and speaks passionately about the need for authenticity in museum displays.

Inka Bertz, who supervises the museum's collections, takes an even more traditionalist tack. "I think museums should speak with authority," she says. "I see a danger if you're being too much part of a culture industry and an entertainment industry. You just lose that authority."

On the other hand, Cilly Kugelmann, who runs the education department and is one of the few Jews on the museum's staff, rejects the notion that entertainment requires a sacrifice of intellectual seriousness. "Entertainment," she says, "is also to raise curiosity, to present puzzles, to introduce people to paradoxes, to give them something to think about--to make people leave the place with questions rather than with answers."

Staff discussions--held in English because neither Gorbey nor Cox speaks German--can be brutal, Cox says. But Gorbey claims to be unfazed by the discord. "You have a range of points of view," he says, "and they all have to be listened to, from something that might sound incredibly traditional--'We will only put on display real objects'--through to people who want to re-create in an absolute sense an environment and have an all-singing, all-dancing robotics display. Which we can't afford.

"Somewhere in the middle," Gorbey adds, "there is something that is appropriate to this particular story and to this particular culture."

But appropriateness is in the eye of the beholder. And in such a charged cultural context, even collecting is a highly political act. Take, for example, the case of the living-room furniture.

Last summer the museum trumpeted the acquisition of a modest living-room set that in 1938 had accompanied the Scheuers, an exiled Jewish family, from Staudernheim to the United States. The set was acquired through a serendipitous family connection: Raymond Wolff, a researcher at the Jewish Museum Berlin, is a descendant of the Scheuers. Museum spokeswoman Eva Söderman says the furniture will represent "the exile of the little people."

But the new social history of the 1970s--which has transformed the collecting practices of American museums--has apparently made less of a mark in Germany. A writer for Der Spiegel has complained on German radio that the furniture acquisition is an example of "fetishizing" Jews.

And Chana C. Schütz, deputy director of Berlin's Centrum Judaicum, questions the museum's judgment as well as its options. "Can you [tell] me one Jewish object that is not a Holocaust object that can be that impressive?" she asks. "They shouldn't think [buying] furniture of people who immigrated to the United States ... makes a good object. It's still old furniture."

Friedrich sighs. The whole point, he says, is to show people that these furniture pieces look exactly like everybody else's old furniture. "You know," he says, "what kind of prejudices and clichés and stereotypes are there."

For Schütz that only raises another problem: The Jewish Museum Berlin is "dealing with people who have never seen in their lives a Jew, and they are full of prejudice." She claims the museum won't be able to take the sort of risks her own Jewish-run center did in a recent exhibition that featured Jewish wartime collaborators--"Jew-catchers," in Berlin--and named names. "I promise you everything [at the Jewish Museum Berlin] will be politically correct because they are very afraid of making any mistakes," she says.

Museum spokeswoman Söderman denies that the exhibition will skirt controversy. At the same time, she maintains that it will offer "an objective portrayal of German-Jewish history"--surely an impossible undertaking anywhere, let alone here.

Yet if objectivity in historical presentations is elusive, a postmodern deconstructive approach may not work either. As Inka Bertz puts it: "Frankly, in a Jewish museum, would you want that? In a Jewish museum, we have to speak with a certain authority. Otherwise, if we would leave everything open to interpretation, we would also have to leave it open to anti-Semitic interpretation, wouldn't we? In a way, we have to have the authority to say, 'No, racial theory is wrong, it doesn't exist, it's bullshit.'"

Even so, the museum does have room to challenge its audience. Söderman says that the post-1945 exhibition section will stress "undecided issues and unanswered questions." And Friedrich hopes that the museum will raise questions about what it means to be German in a society still debating the issues of immigration and citizenship. "We do not need historical museums just for antiquarian reasons and to display the remainders of the material culture," he says. The museum has "got to play a role within German cultural and political life today."

But will it? Gorbey, an innovator in museum presentation methods, is more cautious on this score. "It's a very interesting question: How far do you get involved in social engineering? I don't think museums are the right sort of places to actually pump for a particular message," he says. "I think museums are much better at touching people's experiences and getting them thinking more.

"Obviously," he adds, "we want people to be tolerant." He says visitors should see the museum as a place to "understand a bit more about the Jews and Germany and, as a result, about other minority cultures and their relationship with dominant cultures. But do I want them to learn to be good? I don't think I can make that claim." ?