Our Museum’s History, Part Three

Political Decisions

Trees in front of the Libeskind Building

The conflict over the Jewish Museum Berlin’s conceptual scope and financial and administrative autonomy had reached a climax 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.

Conflict Resolution

In the fall of 1997, the Berlin Senate asked the former US Treasury Secretary W. Michael Blumenthal for advice in resolving the conflict over the Jewish Museum and asked if he might take over as director. Blumenthal was born in Berlin and had been exiled with his parents to Shanghai in 1939.

Blumenthal rejected the plan to use the Libeskind building as both a Jewish museum and a city history museum. He pushed through the administrative autonomy of the Jewish Museum, which under the aegis of the Senate was initially given the status of a dependent foundation under public law on 1 January 1999. The federal government assumed control of the foundation in January 2001.

Under the leadership of Tom Freudenheim, who had been director of various Jewish institutions in the US, and Jeshajahu (Shaike) Weinberg (of blessed memory), former director of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, an exhibition on German-Jewish history was developed.

Portrait photograph of W. Michael Blumenthal

W. Michael Blumenthal, Founding Director of the Jewish Museum Berlin, 2006; Jewish Museum Berlin; photo: Sönke Tollkühn

The conflict over the Jewish Museum took place against the backdrop of political upheaval: the reunification of the two German states and the transfer of the government from Bonn to the historically contaminated terrain of the former capital of Berlin. These upheavals both intensified the conflict and led to its resolution, for the political events brought the German crimes of the Nazi era and the question of an appropriate form of remembrance onto the agenda, long postponed by the Cold War. 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 complement 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, enabled the handover of the Jewish Museum to the state 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 other German-speaking territories.

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.

Photographic portrait of Ken Gorbey

Ken Gorbey, Project Director of the Jewish Museum Berlin, 2000–2002; Jewish Museum Berlin; photo: Jens Ziehe

W. Michael Blumenthal chose the anthropologist and museum manager from New Zealand, Kenneth C. Gorbey, and his partner, Nigel Cox, to design the exhibition. Both were involved in the development of the Te Papa Tongarewa national museum in Wellington, New Zealand and were now coordinating a team to open the permanent exhibition on schedule.

The permanent exhibition at the Jewish Museum is chronological, focusing on themes within each epoch. Featuring images, texts, artworks, everyday objects, media stations, and interactive elements, it examines Jewish culture in Germany, relations among Jews, between Jews and Christians, and between Jews and non-Jewish Germans. Beginning with Jews’ first settlements on the territory of today’s Germany during Roman times and proceeding to their first flowering in the Middle Ages, it then follows the path of emancipation in the nineteenth century to the mass emigration and the mass murder of European Jews under Nazi rule. The period after the Second World War and contemporary Jewish life in Germany conclude the exhibition.

W. Michael Blumenthal, Founding Director of the Jewish Museum Berlin, on the establishment and opening of the Jewish Museum Berlin (in German)

The exhibition concept countered the voices that had declared the Libeskind Building to be 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 extraordinary rooms empty, W. Michael Blumenthal and his staff saw the Jewish Museum as primarily a place for bringing Jewish history to life, not only for remembering the past.

A display case arranged like a Shabbat table inside the Libeskind Building in front of the window slits

Shabbat table and display cases in the Tradition and Change exhibition area shortly before the Jewish Museum Berlin opened; Jewish Museum Berlin; photo: Marion Roßner

On 9 September 2001, the Jewish Museum Berlin held its grand opening 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 the realms of politics, business, and culture in Germany and abroad.

The public opening, scheduled for 11 September 2001, was postponed for two days due to the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York.

Continue to the next chapter of the museum’s history, “Since the Museum Opened.”

History of the Museum (5) Ideas, Debates, Decisions, Inauguration Show all

Ideas, Debates, Decisions, Inauguration

Here is the four-part history of our origins and an accompanying timeline – from the forced closure of the first Jewish Museum in Berlin in 1938, and the original museum’s inspirational influence on our collecting principles, to the renaming of our Academy after our Founding Director W. Michael Blumenthal, in 2016.

How We Came to Be (1971–92)

West Berlin, 1971: the idea emerged for a Jewish Museum to be connected to the Berlin Museum. Finally, in 1992, the cornerstone was laid for the building dedicated to this purpose and designed by Daniel Libeskind.

Controversies and Contradictions (1990s)

In the 1990s, the conflicts between advocates of an independent Jewish museum in Berlin and those who saw it as part of the Berlin Museum continually intensified.

Political Decisions (2001)

The appointment of W. Michael Blumenthal as Museum Director and the transfer of the seat of government to Berlin eventually led to an independent Jewish Museum Berlin, which opened on 13 September 2001.

Since the Museum Opened (2001–Present)

With its exhibitions, publications, educational work, and diverse events calendar, our museum developed into a lively forum for reflecting on Jewish history and culture and, more broadly, on migration and social diversity in Germany.

Timeline (1933–2017)

An overview in dates:
From the opening of the first Jewish Museum in Berlin in 1933 to the opening of our largest themed exhibition to date, Welcome to Jerusalem, and the planning of a new permanent exhibition.