For those who’ve seen pictures of Berlin’s Jewish Museum, actually arriving there can be a confusing experience.
I had expected the surroundings to match Daniel Libeskind’s jagged zinc zig-zag of a building. As unlikely as such a construction might be in other cities, Berlin loves its cutting-edge architecture. And the museum fell along the border between the eastern and western parts of the city, suggesting that it might be part of one of the many deconstructionist paradises that sprang up on land formerly occupied by the Berlin Wall.
Instead, I found a stark block of residential towers and an overgrown park set well off Friedrichstrasse, the thoroughfare where Checkpoint Charlie used to stand. The highly experimental architecture of the museum, which opened in 2001, was all the more startling for its failure to conform to its location, a disharmony that filled me with both confusion and understanding. The building didn’t fit in at all, and yet I realized that there was no way that such a museum could fit in, either in terms of its design or the history it depicted.
Going inside the museum only intensified this strange tension between knowledge and bewilderment. Like all museums, the Jewish Museum naturally functions as a way to disseminate information, a mission that it carries out admirably. Designers spread exhibits along three “axes”: the Axis of Continuity, which leads to a large collection of displays about Jewish life in Berlin before and after National Socialism; the Axis of Exile, which treats the situation of Jews who fled Germany; and the Axis of the Holocaust, which contains the last possessions of Jews murdered in concentration camps.
In contrast to most museums, Libeskind’s architecture is not secondary to the exhibits; rather, it is critically important for both designers and visitors. If the exhibits work to educate by providing concrete information, the architecture functions in the opposite way, disorienting visitors with its abstraction and forcing aside any theories they might have developed to understand the history of Jews in Germany.
A long, continuous, angular corridor breaks up a straight one, creating “voids”—dim, empty spaces—where the two meet. The sloping path of the Axis of Exile opens into the Garden of Exile, an enclosed outdoor space filled with tall, square concrete pillars. The Axis of the Holocaust ends in the Holocaust Tower, an empty, high-ceilinged concrete room illuminated only by the natural light coming through a high window. A ladder that leads to the window is just out of reach.
Despite the sometimes obvious symbolism, the architectural elements don’t lend themselves to easy understanding, and they certainly discourage easy navigation. For all the helpful explanations that the exhibits provided, the museum itself is difficult, confusing, even incomprehensible.
This tension is ultimately the museum’s greatest success: it subtly, yet candidly, evokes the strange paradox that the more we know about the Holocaust, the less we can claim to understand it.
Libeskind’s building is deconstructionist in the fullest sense of the word—challenging those who deny or discount the evil inherent in the Jewish genocide, as well as those who believe that they have found a way to comprehend it. The Jewish Museum not only educates visitors about suffering and hatred, but also allows—and forces—them to experience the confusion, the emptiness, and the silence that must accompany such an education.
For me, leaving the museum was not an escape, but rather an expansion of the psychological space of Libeskind’s voids to encompass the park, the buildings, and the city outside. Had the architecture been different, the questions that the museum raised might have disappeared as soon I exited its doors. They did not.
—Staff writer Marianne F. Kaletzky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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