Trees in front of the Libeskind Building

Our Museum’s History, Part Three

Political Decisions in 2001

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

“I envisioned a museum that would present the good and evil in the history of all German-speaking Jews and inspire visitors to contemplate the benefits of positive, tolerant coexistence.” —W. Michael Blumenthal, 2015

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.

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

The memorial, designed by Peter Eisenmann and built from 2003 to 2005, is composed of many concrete slabs, or stelae, and is located near the Brandenburg Gate.
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Topography of Terror

Exhibitions have been documenting the terrors of Nazi rule on the site of the former Gestapo headquarters since 1987.
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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 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.

Portrait photograph of Ken Gorbey

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

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.

Te Papa Tongarewa

The name of New Zealand’s national museum, which opened in 1998, is Māori and roughly translates as “the place of treasures of this land.”
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Portrait photograph of W. Michael Blumenthal

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.

Plates and silverware are displayed in a glass case in the permanent exhibition

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.”

Daniel Barenboim

The Argentinian-Israeli-Spanish-Palestinian pianist and conductor was born in Buenos Aires in 1942. Among his many accomplishments, in 1999 he joined with literary scholar Edward Said to co-found the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, which advocates for mutual understanding in the Middle East conflict.
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Johannes Rau

The Social Democratic politician Johannes Rau (1931–2006) was President of the Federal Republic of Germany from 1999 to 2004.
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Citation recommendation:

Jewish Museum Berlin (2020), Our Museum’s History, Part Three . Political Decisions in 2001.

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

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