The conflict over the Jewish Museum had reached its peak with Amnon Barzel’s resignation. W. Michael Blumenthal’s appointment as museum director finally brought signs of resolution. Blumenthal established the museum’s independence and developed an exhibition concept with a team of experts.
In December 1997, the Berlin Senate asked the former US Treasury Secretary W. Michael Blumenthal for advice in resolving the conflict over the Jewish Museum and eventually to take up the office of director. Blumenthal was born in Berlin and had emigrated with his parents to Shanghai.
Blumenthal rejected the plan to use the Libeskind building as both a Jewish and a city history museum. He pushed through the administrative autonomy of the Jewish Museum, which under the aegis of the Senate was given the status of a dependent foundation under public law on 1 January 1999 and was then handed over to the German government in January 2001.
Under the leadership of Tom Freudenheim, who had been director of various Jewish institutions in the US, and Jeshajahu (Shaike) Weinberg (in blessed memory), former director of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, an exhibition on German-Jewish history was developed. The conflict over the Jewish Museum took place against the backdrop of political upheaval that led both to its intensification and its resolution. The reunification of the two German states and the transfer of the government from Bonn to the historically contaminated terrain of the former Reich capital Berlin brought the German crimes of the Nazi era overlaid by the Cold War and the question of an appropriate form of remembrance to the agenda. At the same time, there was discussion about the "Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe" and the "Topography of Terror." The Jewish Museum now seemed to be the complementary counterpart to these memorials.
The appointment of a commissioner for culture and media by the new German government in 1998 and the support of the first incumbent, Michael Naumann, made the handover of the Jewish Museum to the state possible in January 2001. The Jewish Museum is no longer concerned solely with the Jewish history of Berlin but with the entire history of Jews in Germany and the German Jews.
Exhibition Concept and Museum Opening
After the takeover by the German government, the Jewish Museum Berlin became the sole user of the building complex in Lindenstraße, consisting then of the baroque old building and the new building by Daniel Libeskind. The exhibition space in both buildings was to show the permanent exhibition on German-Jewish history and future temporary exhibitions.
W. Michael Blumenthal chose the anthropologist and museum manager from New Zealand, Kenneth C. Gorbey, and his collaborator, Nigel Cox, for the realization of the exhibition. Both were involved in the development of the national museum Te Papa in Wellington, New Zealand, and were now coordinating a team of employees to open the permanent exhibition and service functions on schedule.
The permanent exhibition at the Jewish Museum is chronological, focusing on themes within the epochs. It tells of Jewish culture in Germany and the difficult relationship between Jews and non-Jews. From the first presence of Jews in Roman times through the first boom in the Middle Ages, it follows the path of emancipation in the 19th century to the mass emigration and the mass murder under the Nazis. The period after the Second World War and contemporary Jewish life in Germany conclude the exhibition.
The exhibition concept countered the voices that had declared the Libeskind Building a Holocaust memorial during the debate surrounding the erection of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Contrary to the frequently raised demand to leave the striking rooms empty, W. Michael Blumenthal and his staff saw the Jewish Museum not only as a place of remembrance, but rather placed the main focus on the lively teaching of Jewish history.
Ninth September 2001 saw the opening of the Jewish Museum Berlin with a gala concert conducted by Daniel Barenboim. During the subsequent gala dinner, the then German President Johannes Rau and W. Michael Blumenthal addressed 850 prominent guests from politics, business, and culture from home and abroad.
The opening to the public scheduled for 11 September 2001 was postponed for two days due to the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York.
A description of the Jewish Museum Berlin’s history and development can be downloaded as a pdf-file.