Despite Unanswered Questions, Berlin’s Jewish Museum to Open

After six years of construction, a prolonged debate about administrative control and numerous delays, Berlin’s Jewish museum will be officially dedicated this weekend.

As of Feb. 5, visitors will be able to tour on weekends the unusual zigzag- shaped building — designed by Polish Israeli architect Daniel Libeskind – - which has been praised as an architectural masterpiece.

Exhibitions are scheduled to open in the fall of 2000, but no one seems to know just which artifacts the museum will display.

The museum’s opening comes amid the ongoing dispute regarding the proposed national Holocaust memorial in Berlin. A new plan unveiled this week to combine the memorial with a research center failed to end more than a decade of dickering over the memorial.

German officials are now questioning whether there will be enough political consensus to move forward.

The compromise plan — which was negotiated by former U.S. Treasury Secretary Michael Blumenthal, the head of the soon-to-be-opened Jewish museum — adds the research center and a giant wall of 1 million books to the monument, which was designed by American architect Peter Eisenman.

The compromise, which was agreed to by Eisenman, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and his cultural minister, Michael Naumann, both of whom originally opposed the monument, would also reduce the size of Eisenman’s memorial from 2,700 to about 1,800 stone slabs.

After discussions with members of all parties, the president of Parliament, Wolfgang Thierse, said this week that continuing objections by different legislators means that the issue is not yet ready for parliamentary discussion.

A major stumbling block to the project may be its cost: Instead of its original $9 million price tag, the latest plan has become a $54 million dollar project.

At a time when the German government is straining under the costs of moving its administration from Bonn to Berlin, the project’s high construction costs could torpedo its chances altogether.

The agreement on the memorial, meanwhile, appears to pave the way for an arrangement between the Jewish museum and the memorial, although exactly what the relationship will be remains unclear.

The museum itself has not been free from controversy.

The city of Berlin fired the museum’s previous director, Israeli curator Amon Barzel, in part because he wanted the museum to project a more universal and contemporary approach to Jewish art and history.

The dispute between Barzel and Berlin government officials became so intense that the officials began referring to the building as “the Libeskind Building,” stripping it of the designation “Jewish museum.” At one point, the Berlin city museum also threatened to take over large parts of the exhibition space for displays on non-Jewish themes, reducing the Jewish museum to a wing of the building.

After Blumenthal was hired to direct the museum, the museum gained administrative autonomy to determine the content of its exhibitions without interference from city officials.

At a news conference earlier this week, Blumenthal, who was born near Berlin, said the museum would focus on the Holocaust and German Jewish history, particularly in Berlin. Assistant Director Tom Freudenheim said the main exhibition will depict the history of Jews in Germany from Roman times to the present. In addition, there will be temporary exhibitions displaying Jewish art, history and culture.

Critics say the museum does not own enough objects to begin to fill the large museum.

Members of Berlin’s Jewish community, who fought to keep it as a Jewish museum when its future was uncertain, say they have not been informed about current plans.

“There has been no contact with us until now about the concept of the museum,” said Julius Schoeps, a member of the community and the director of the Moses Mendelssohn Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Potsdam.

Hermann Simon, director of Berlin’s Centrum Judaicum, an archive and exhibition hall, says he also has not been informed of museum plans. Still, he said he assumed the two institutions would continue to cooperate on certain exhibitions, especially those on Berlin Jewish history.

The two institutions have jointly presented several exhibitions in past years while the new Jewish museum space was being completed.

According to the museum, its main exhibition will highlight relations between German Jews and non-Jews, the assimilation and integration of German Jews, the role and influence of Jewish citizens in Germany, anti-Semitism, Nazi persecution, the Holocaust and contemporary Jewish life.

The new museum does not yet have adequate financing, officials say. Blumenthal estimates that its annual operating costs will be about $11 million. Fund- raising efforts were being kicked off at a gala dinner for 500 guests on Saturday evening, which cost cosponsors up to $15,000 a table.

Honorary guests include Chancellor Schroeder, Naumann, the cultural minister, and Berlin Mayor Eberhard Diepgen. Sponsors include corporations such as Bosch, Mercedes, Siemens and Krupp, as well as unions and private contributors.

The building’s shape is based on a star of David that is intersected by a straight line. In a brochure about the museum issued for the opening, Libeskind says he had three goals when designing the building: the enormous contribution to Berlin history made by its Jewish citizens, the necessity of integrating Holocaust memory into the consciousness of the city and the acknowledgment of the erasure and void of Berlin’s Jewish life.

Libeskind has dubbed the project “Between the Lines” because of the two main lines in the building. “One is a straight line, but broken into many fragments; the other is a tortuous line but continuing indefinitely,” he has written.

In a recent interview, Libeskind admitted it will not be easy for curators to work with the unusual jagged spaces he has created. “To tell the story with appropriate objects in an adequate manner will be the task of gifted curators.”

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