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Arts

Berlin's Jewish Museum exceeded expectations

The museum was a success even before it was finished. Nearly 350,000 people visited Berlin's Jewish Museum when it was just an empty structure, and more than 7 million have come since it opened in 2001.

Jewish Museum in Berlin

More than twice as many visitors than first expected come annually

Usually museums are built to display existing collections of art or artifacts. That wasn't the case with the Jewish Museum in Berlin.

First, the city debated for 20 years whether it should even have a Jewish museum, and if so, what it should look like, and what should go in it. Finally, the Berlin Senate agreed to commission American architect Daniel Libeskind to build an extension to the Baroque-style Berlin City Museum, which would house the yet undefined Jewish Museum.

But Libeskind's design was so extraordinarily original and symbolic that the Baroque building soon mutated into just a wing of the Jewish Museum and later to its reception area. The zinc-coated zig-zag building has often been compared to a broken Star of David, or to an explosion of glass and concrete.

The building is certainly spectacular and symbolic, says Program Director Cilly Kugelmann. He says it's a metaphor for the difficult and complicated history of Germans and Jews, German Jews and Jews in Germany.

Even in the late 1990s, people would wait for months to get a tour of the bare frame of the building with its dark stairwells, empty spaces and crooked walls. Paths and corridors branch off to symbolic destinations - to the outside, to freedom, to a 'Garden of Exile,' or to a dead end.

Aerial view of the Jewish Museum in Berlin

It's not a Holocaust museum, but covers two millennia of German-Jewish history

Exile and return

In 1997, the Berlin Senate selected Michael Blumenthal, now 84, to be the director of the museum. Without him, says Kugelmann, the museum wouldn't be what it is today - not just because of his personal charisma but also his historical role.

Blumenthal was born in 1926 in Oranienburg near Berlin. In 1939 he fled with his family to Shanghai and then emigrated to the United States, where he had a successful career in business and politics and served as US Secretary of the Treasury under President Jimmy Carter.

In the late 1990s Blumenthal returned to Germany, explained Kugelmann, and his authenticity, personal story, and negotiating skills have helped turned the Jewish Museum into an independent institution and one of the most important sites in the German capital.

"Who is a Jew? And what does it mean to be a Jew?" asks the permanent exhibition which spans 3,000 square meters (nearly 10,800 square feet) and leads visitors through two millennia of German-Jewish history.

It's all told with the help of items on loan from all over the world, including furniture, dishes, documents, letters and photos, as well as film.

Garden of Exile at the Jewish Museum in Berlin

The Garden of Exile is meant as a place for reflection

Children welcome

The child-friendly parts of the exhibition have become something of a trademark of the museum. Young visitors are invited to participate in a tour that teaches them what goes in a Sabbath dish and why the walls of the museum aren't straight.

Scores of school classes visit the museum regularly - with many expecting a Holocaust museum. But what they find is a much more comprehensive look at German-Jewish ties, which doesn't shy away from the horrors of history, but also doesn't cast guilt on the young German visitors.

Daniel Libeskind's sketch for the entrance to the Jewish Museum Academy in Berlin

Libeskind's plan for the academy

The Jewish Museum initially counted on receiving 300,000 visitors per year, but it turned out to be 750,000 visitors annually, and the number is growing.

When the Academy of the Jewish Museum is completed next year, visitors will also have the chance to explore the museum's archives and library and dig even deeper into the subject matter. Daniel Libeskind is in the process of converting a former flower market to serve as the academy.

The academy's bare structure will be used at the 10th anniversary celebrations. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is set to receive the Prize for Tolerance and Understanding at a dinner on October 24.

Author: Silke Bartlick / kjb

Editor: Ben Knight

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