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Controversies and Contradictions

The concepts agreed upon contained many vague phrases and compromise formulae concerning both the question of the organizational independence of the Jewish Museum in the Berlin Museum and of the concrete implementation of the "integrative concept." Through Daniel Libeskind’s architecture, they had found another new interpretation. Throughout the 1990s, the conflict between the various parties continued to escalate. Several factors played a role: 1) the reception of the architectural design, 2) the issue of implementing the design and the use of rooms in the Libeskind building, and 3) the merging of the Berlin Museum with the Märkisches Museum to form a City Museum Foundation.

Daniel Libeskind’s Design: Extension to the Berlin Museum or a Jewish Museum?

The Berlin Senate intended to implement Daniel Libeskind’s design and at the same time retain the "integrative concept."

Interior view of the Jewish Museum Berlin, second level with window slits

Interior view of the Jewish Museum Berlin, second level with window slits, 1999
© Silke Helmerdig

Most of the architectural designs submitted to the 1988/89 competition divided the utilizable area, devoting – as had been specified – about a third to the future Jewish Museum. Daniel Libeskind’s concept, on the other hand, works with symbolically inscribing the trauma caused by the Nazis into Berlin city history.

Inspired by Walter Benjamin’s essay "One-way Street," a book of remembrance for the victims of the Holocaust, the invisible web of relationships between Jews and Germans, and the unfinished last act of Arnold Schoenberg’s opera "Moses und Aron," he created the "Voids" – concave cavities that lend the museum a unique atmosphere. In the misunderstood reception of the Holocaust as "Jewish history," Libeskind’s design came to be seen as a symbol for a "Jewish" museum.

Numerous publications in the early 1990s already called the design by the shortened form of "Jewish Museum." In the context of the debate on the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, the building was perceived more as a Holocaust memorial.

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Helmuth F. Braun, Head of Special Exibitions, on the Libeskind Building’s architecture before the opening of the museum (in German language)

Questions of Authority

In the early 1990s, in the wake of reunification, the Berlin Senate merged the city-history museums: The Berlin City Museum Foundation was formed in June 1995 from the West-Berlin Berlin Museum, the East-Berlin Märkisches Museum and other institutions from both parts of the city. Senate spokesperson responsible for museums, Reiner Güntzer, was named director general of the City Museum Foundation.

Cover of the brochure on the Jewish Museum Berlin topping out ceremony

Brochure on the Jewish Museum Berlin topping out ceremony, 1995

By uniting the local historical collections in the Berlin City Museum Foundation in 1995, the weight of the Jewish Museum shifted in relation to other areas of the collection. The Jewish Museum was now one of five "departments" with two out of 23 "sections" of this museum association. The original "integrative concept" idea of Jewish and Berlin history, a minority and majority perspective, coexisting on an equal basis became precarious. The exhibition and storage rooms of the extension should contain the holdings not only of the Berlin Museum, but also the far more substantial collections of the Märkisches Museum.

Shortly before the museum merger, the art historian and curator Amnon Barzel was appointed head of the "Jewish Museum Department" in the summer of 1994. In 1995, he explained his interpretation of the "integrative concept." He argued that the Jewish Museum should tell the story of the majority society from the perspective of the Jewish minority, and not vice versa, as previously planned.

In doing so, he asserted the claim to take the building seriously as a Jewish Museum – an interpretation already familiar to the public – and as a consequence to reconsider its use, the concept of the exhibition, and the administrative status of the museum. However, a public discussion of Barzel’s criticism of the "integrative concept" was not what the cultural administration intended.

Reiner Güntzer and the Berlin cultural administration held firm in their conviction to house the Jewish collection only in the basement of the new building, while reserving the rooms on the upper floors for the fashion and theater departments and the city history exhibition. The latter should also contain a "Jews in the society" section, about which a conceptual agreement could not be reached.

Amnon Barzel holds a speech

Amnon Barzel opens a photo exhibition in the shell of today’s Jewish Museum Berlin, 30.4.1995
© ullstein

Amnon Barzel, however, meanwhile also supported by the Jewish Community of Berlin, was pressing for not only the cultural, but also the financial and administrative autonomy of the Jewish Museum.

The conflict culminated in Amnon Barzel’s resignation in summer 1997. This attracted international attention as well as being harshly criticized by the Jewish Community.

Incompatible Collection Concepts

In November 1992, the Märkisches Museum presented a selection of its exhibits on Jewish history in the Jewish Museum’s rooms at the Martin-Gropius-Bau. These were seen to supplement the holdings of the "Jewish Department" at the Berlin Museum.

Poster of the exhibition "The other half"

Poster of the exhibition "The other half" in the Martin-Gropius-Bau, November 1992, Jewish Museum Berlin Foundation
© Jewish Museum Berlin, photo: Jens Ziehe

Founded in 1874 as the "Märkisches Provinzial Museum," the collection included not only purchases and donations of Jewish citizens from the period before 1933, but also acquisitions made during the Nazi era and under force. Amongst them, for example, was so-called "Jewish silver." The remains of this collection and the circumstances of its acquisition were presented in the exhibition "The other half" in 1992: When Nazi pillaging in 1939 forced Jews to hand over their silverware to the municipal pawnshops, the then director of the Märkisches Museum, Walter Stengel, was able to acquire objects for the material price which fell far short of their actual value.

Index card on an object (ship trophy) in the silver collection at the Märkisches Museum
© City Museum Foundation - Märkisches Museum, photo: Jens Ziehe

The planned merger of the collections of the Berlin Museum and the Märkisches Museum now put the "Jewish Department" in the precarious position of being assigned to a museum that had been involved in Nazi art looting and whose holdings embraced dispossessed Jewish cultural artifacts.

By contrast, the "Jewish Department" had often received loans and donations with the explicit reference that the Berlin Museum had only been founded after the Second World War. These ethics and the legitimacy of collecting practices were called into question through the merger with the Märkisches Museum.

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Inka Bertz, Head of Collections, on the concept and assembly of the Jewish Museum’s collections (in German language)

Continue to the next chapter of the museum’s history "Political Decisions"

A description of the Jewish Museum Berlin’s history and development can be downloaded as a pdf-file.

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