Berlin’s Jewish museum remains empty


BERLIN, April 24 (JTA) — On an unusually warm day in early spring, Tom Freudenheim sat in his sparsely decorated office at the Jewish Museum Berlin, smoking a cigarette and getting frustrated.

The German-born American, who was with the Smithsonian Institution in Washington for many years — and later New York’s YIVO Institute for Jewish Research — had just received a letter from an American friend that included an itinerary of the friend’s group trip to Berlin. One of the scheduled events was a tour of the still-empty Jewish Museum to look at the architecture.

Freudenheim, who is the museum’s deputy director and was to lead the tour, didn’t know what to tell the friend.

The museum’s director, former U.S. Treasury Secretary Michael Blumenthal, had just announced that the museum’s collection would not be installed until at least October 2001.

Blumenthal blamed the yearlong postponement on a faulty air conditioning system whose repair might mean closing the building to visitors.

That would require them to stop the wildly popular visits to see the empty museum’s architecture — they’ve drawn 150,000 people already, including many English speakers — which would also mean Freudenheim couldn’t lead the tour his friend already had planned.

Freudenheim doesn’t know when or if the museum will stop offering visits to see the building’s architecture. He also doesn’t know when the museum will finish installing its collection and open in earnest.

And about what he might know — what the museum’s collection will include, for example — he and the other museum staffers were being notoriously tight-lipped.

The much-anticipated Jewish Museum Berlin, designed by architect Daniel Libeskind, is a jarring sight of glaring metal nestled in a middle-class pocket of bland post-World War II apartment buildings.

A tall building that snakes around at harsh, not-quite-right angles, its glaring metallic exterior is broken only by odd-shaped windows and gash-like lines that symbolize a dissected Star of David.

The $60 million building, whose inside is even more unpredictable, unsettling and strangely beautiful than its outside, is so beloved that some fans would like it to stay empty forever.

On the other side of the debate are those in the art community who wonder if and when the museum will ever be filled.

Although it already has a small collection from its previous life as an arm of the Berlin City Museum, staffers are being extremely tight-lipped about what else will go in the large museum.

The secrecy has spawned a widespread rumor that the museum’s grand opening has really been postponed because the staff does not have enough pieces to fill the it, or a clear idea of what they want to do.

Freudenheim dismissed this rumor.

“I keep getting people saying, ‘Yeah, I read about the air conditioning, but I know that’s just an excuse,’ ” Freudenheim said. “But it really is the air conditioning.”

Still, when asked about the collection, Freudenheim will only talk vaguely about borrowing and buying from collectors and museums around the world, but refuses to give more concrete details.

What he will say, however, is that the museum is going to be less about objects than concepts.

“This is not being seen as an object exhibit,” he said. “We are starting out at the other end, with the story of Jews in Germany.

“What we’re asking is, ‘How do we tell a story in a museum context?'” he added.

While the Holocaust necessarily plays a role in that story, museum director Blumenthal often reminds people that this is but one part of the entire story of Jewish life in Germany.

To tell this story, Freudenheim said, the museum plans to rely heavily on interactive and technological elements such as computers and videos.

“We’re creating an experience rather than just being a place that houses things,” Freudenheim said. “The Holocaust Museum” in Washington “is not necessarily our model, but it creates an experience in the same way.”

The museum will offer all information in English and German. Bilingual museums are still relatively rare in Berlin, but it is expected that this museum will be especially popular with American tourists.

For the time being, however, the museum’s administrators are most focused on getting everything ready.

Asked whether the museum would open by its planned date in October 2001, Freudenheim said only, “We’re being very cagey about definite dates right now.”

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