Changing Perspectives Inside the Jewish Museum Berlin

John Hill
30. June 2020
Photo: Yves Sucksdorff © Jewish Museum Berlin

The Jewish Museum Berlin is reopening its core exhibition on August 23 after a nearly two-and-a-half-year redesign. It replaces the exhibition that was on display from the opening of the building designed by Daniel Libeskind in 2001 until December 2017, having attracted 11 million visitors in that time.

Exterior view of the Jewish Museum Berlin, Libeskind Building (Photo: Jens Ziehe © Jewish Museum Berlin)

One of the more interesting aspects of the construction of Daniel Libeskind's design for the Jewish Museum Berlin is that it was completed in 1999, ten years after Libeskind's competition win, but sat empty until it opened officially two years later. Around 350,000 people visited the museum's empty shell in those years, a testament to the power of Libeskind's daring design and the difficulty in mounting an exhibition inside such an idiosyncratic building. Some people, including architect Detlef Weitz, the head of chezweitz GmbH, wanted to keep the museum an empty shell and let it serve as a Holocaust memorial.

What was eventually placed inside the Libeskind Building (an addition to the 18th-century Collegienhaus) as its core exhibition has been considered, at least according to artnet, "old-fashioned and clunky—in short, always something of a disappointment." That exhibition closed in December 2017 — after which, recalling the original completion, the museum gave tours through the empty Libeskind Building — and since then the museum has been working on replacing it with Jewish Life in Germany: Past and Present. The new core exhibition has been developed by a 20-person team at the Jewish Museum Berlin and designed and built by the consortium chezweitz GmbH/Hella Rolfes Architekten BDA. 

Interior view of the Jewish Museum Berlin, windows in the stairwell of the Libeskind Building. (Photo: Jens Ziehe © Jewish Museum Berlin)

Per a June 23 press release from the museum, the backbone of the new exhibition is made up of five historical chapters, spanning "from the beginnings of Jewish life in Ashkenaz to the emancipation movement in the nineteenth century and its violent destruction through Nazism to the varied voices of Jewish life today." Yet, unlike the previous core exhibition, the 1700-year history of Jews in Germany will not be told chronologically: "The path through the new exhibition alternates between historical epochs and insights into Jewish themes that cannot be described in geographical or chronological categories."

Each stage of the museum's creation and evolution happens to coincide with important local and world events. The competition results announced in early 1989 preceded the Berlin Wall coming down by just a few months. The museum's official opening took place a couple days before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. And now the redesigned core exhibition's reopening coincides with a global pandemic and rising anti-Semitism around the world. So all eyes will be on the Jewish Museum Berlin when it opens on August 23. In the meantime, below are some peeks at the new core exhibition, Jewish Life in Germany: Past and Present.

Light projection on the stairs to the core exhibition. (© design: Arbeitsgemeinschaft chezweitz GmbH/ Hella Rolfes Architekten BDA)
Bowing to a number of Jewish personalities in the Hall of Fame of the Jewish Museum Berlin's new core exhibition; illustrations by Andree Volkmann. (Photo: Yves Sucksdorff © Jewish Museum Berlin)
At the entrance to the new core exhibition of the Jewish Museum Berlin is the Welcome Pointóa wooden sculpture modeled after a tree. (Photo: Yves Sucksdorff © Jewish Museum Berlin)
What is Jewish music? View of the Music Room, one of the eight theme rooms of the Jewish Museum Berlinís new core exhibition. (Photo: Yves Sucksdorff © Jewish Museum Berlin)

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