Saturday, May 15, 2010

Jewish-German History -- Where to start? (Jüdisches Museum Berlin)

Harmonious narratives have always held an appeal for me. When I played with Legos as a kid, I followed each step of the directions from beginning to end. I found it amazing how you could start with a single brown block and end up with a huge, intricate wild west fort, and I loved watching it take shape. A couple times I built something of my own design, but it was always simple and shabby -- like a car with too many wheels, or a dolphin arbitrarily stuck on top. I much preferred the instructions they provided with the box -- watching and observing the progression of thing being built.

Similarly, I'm a fairly methodical museum goer. To this day, I start at the beginning of the museum, read through just about every text box and examine every picture I can, following the already created narrative from logical beginning to logical end. In light of this tendency towards harmony, The Jewish Museum of Berlin (covering "2000 years of Jewish-German History") poses a difficult problem for me, because there is no beginning. The building is shaped like a crooked lightning bolt, or a snake having an epileptic fit, and looking from the outside, there isn't even an entrance. In order to get to the exhibitions, you have to enter the building which used to be the old museum, go down some stairs and into a tunnel, and suddenly you're in the basement of the new building.

If you're trying to figure out where to start in exploring German-Jewish history, you might think that the Holocaust would be a good place to start. But the museums architect, Daniel Libeskind, challenges through his design the notion that history creates a harmonious narrative: empty spaces, called "voids", are build into the museum; there are seemingly arbitrary jagged holes running through some of the walls. And the Holocaust exhibit (i.e. 1939-45) is only small part of the museum, comprising just one "axis" (like a musuem "wing", but it intersects with two others) in the basement. According to our tour guide, this is because it is the lowest point in Jewish-German History -- but not necessarily the starting point.

So the question of where to begin with this history is left up to the visitor. Start with the holocaust? Or go to the exhibition of Jews in comics? Or look at german-jewish relations during the 1400s? We had to take responsibility for our own experience with this history.

Well, not quite. We had a tour guide. I've heard that it's useful to remember how contradictory history and people are. (Reminds me of Andrei Codrescu's talk a few months ago at the U of M about the "picture perfect" Romanian revolution of 1989) As a writer, I've experienced how my tendency towards harmony has resulted in "flattened" poems -- where things that didn't fit were taken out, and the poem became less interesting and less truthful. It might be worthwhile for me to go back over the next few days and explore that museum on my own. If I do, I'll report back.

If you want to see some wicked pictures of a wicked piece of architecture, check out the musuem website here: (In English & German)

1 comment:

  1. I certainly agree that people have 'ways' of reading histories and stories -- but, especially as a generation very much used to non-linear plots in both film and literature, I feel that it isn't too difficult to wrap one's mind around a museum like the Jüdisches Museum. I remember being there. You can still read every placard and peer at every photo or piece of.. uh, memorabilia, without creating some kind of jumbled up timeline. I also am a strong proponent of museums that incorporate experience (even if only to a small degree -- as in, even if one can't actually know from the museum what it was like being a German Jew over the ages, one is given a taste); think of that Titanic exhibit, where they gave every visitor a ticket (to see if they lived or died at the end!) and had a big chunk of the iceberg that you could put your hand on, and at least have a semblance of knowledge of how fucking cold it must have been that night in the Atlantic waters. -- Does that make sense?