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“It’s much more personal”: Inside the Jewish Museum’s biggest-ever project

After a two-year overhaul, the museum’s permanent exhibition is finally reopening on Sunday. We meet one of its curators to hear about the process behind this mammoth upgrade.

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The core exhibition at the Jewish Museum has been completely overhauled, and will reopen after a two-year break. Photo: Yves Sucksdorff

The Jewish Museum’s new permanent exhibition is reopening on Sunday. We meet one of its curators to hear about the process behind this mammoth upgrade.

“This is where we learn that it needs to be quicker,” laughs Michal Friedlander, a curator and historian at the Jewish Museum. We’re halfway through the new permanent exhibition she’s been working on for six years, waiting for the English translation of a German text to appear on a video screen. The museum itself has been closed since March 14th, and will look very different when it reopens with Jewish Life in Germany: Past and Present, the new exhibition premiering this Sunday, August 23rd, after a two-year hiatus. There’s still plenty to do, which means no one in the team is getting much rest.

Friedlander, a cheerful specialist of Jewish ceremonial art who’s worked at the museum since it opened, speaks with a soft English accent and a dry sense of humour. The daughter of a rabbi, she’s part of the 20-strong group of curators behind the largest project in the museum’s 19-year history, a mammoth operation that saw the team overhaul its previous permanent exhibition, which hosted roughly 11 million visitors during a 15-year run that ended in December 2017. Citing a desire to modernise its core offering, the team closed the permanent exhibition to completely rework the space inside its distinctive home, a famously zig-zagging – and imposing – building by the American architect Daniel Libeskind that brings to mind a broken Star of David.  “One of the things we tried to improve was wayfinding,” Friedlander explains through a face mask as we climb the stairs to the exhibition entrance. “That has always been an issue in this beloved but complex building.”

The exhibition is segmented into five historical chapters that begin in the Middle Ages before moving through the emancipation movement and Nazi period into Jewish life today. There’s a new focus on audience accessibility, seen in the new embrace of technology. This is reflected in the many sonic exhibits, some triggered by infra-red sensors when visitors pass by, playing prayer chants and pop music from Israeli musicians. The exhibition isn’t particularly text-heavy, with plenty of giant-sized artworks, videos and graphics. There’s even a cartoon Jewish hall of fame featuring Hannah Arendt, Gershom Scholem and, the most famous Jew of them all, Jesus. And if a guest wants a deeper dive into a particular topic or object, they can do so via one of the many touchscreen information points.

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Michal Friedlander has been the Curator of Judaica and Applied Arts at the Jewish Museum Berlin since 2001. Photo: Ernst Fesseler / Jewish Museum Berlin

“It’s complicated to make an exhibition that works on so many levels,” Friedlander says as we move through the many angular, misshaped rooms. “For visitors of different ages, backgrounds and cultures. You have to appeal to people who have no knowledge without being condescending to people who have a lot.”

The educational approach, a thorough overview of Judaism and Jewish culture, might bring to mind one of the museum’s best-known temporary exhibitions, 2013’s The Whole Truth: Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Jews. The museum promised to answer every question about Judaism and being Jewish, including a provocative exhibit in which Jews would take turns sitting in a plexiglass box to answer questions from visitors. (The controversial exhibit even reached CNN.) There were also voting columns asking visitors to decide if Jews were good businesspeople, animal-loving, influential or intelligent. (With 2500 chips, the “business-minded” and “intelligent” columns were filled to the rim twice.) There are hints of that provocation scattered throughout the new permanent exhibition, including in a video installation featuring Jewish people pondering if it’s appropriate to make Jewish jokes.  “It’s not easy working in a place dealing with this difficult and complex history,” Friedlander says. “You need to have a lightness of touch, which I think this museum achieves.”

From 20th-century cutlery to a collection of charity boxes from around the world, there are more than 1,000 objects on display, including more than 700 from the museum’s own vaults. Guests learn about kosher food, traditional Jewish musical instruments and the holiest Jewish object, the Torah. There’s also a collection of silver – dishes, lamps, ladles – from the Hamburg Museum of Arts and Crafts that was stolen from Jewish families by the Nazi regime in 1939. “People want to come and see original objects,” Friedlander says. “That’s what makes it a museum. This was also an opportunity to showcase our own collection, which we’ve built up over the years.” 

The Nazi period, titled “Catastrophe”, details the many ways anti-semitism became state policy, including a towering installation displaying the 962 anti-Jewish laws and policies put in place under the Third Reich. The exhibition moves between personal individual stories and broader politics, exploring both the structure of the Nazi State and its impact on Jewish people. Those private narratives show the events through the lens of those alive at the time. “It’s much more personal,” Friedlander says. “Most of the photographs were taken by Jews during the period, rather than photo documentation from the police or the Nazi regime. It’s about how Jews saw their world. One of the big questions we hear is: ’Why didn’t they all leave?’ You’ll see in the exhibition why people didn’t see it coming. We went year by year, showing how people saw it at the time.”

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One exhibit presents the 962 anti-Jewish laws and policies put in place under the Third Reich. Photo: Yves Sucksdorff / Jewish Museum Berlin

Friedlander’s favourite exhibit tells the story of Paula Straus, one of Germany’s first female industrial designers. “She was killed in Auschwitz,” Friedlander says as we look at Straus’ photo. “She thought she would emigrate, and sent a book of photographs of her work to some family members in the US. She didn’t get out, because she stayed to take care of her mother. But, from the family, we now have that book, her letters and last postcard.”

Though it’s still a few days from opening, the museum is buzzing with early visitors, some of whom Friedlander greets between exhibits. Some museum staff run final tests on touchscreens and audio displays, while others – unbeknownst to me – analyse the visitors, tracking which objects they gravitate to, and for how long. The exhibition is a complex, detailed operation, but one that still manages to have an easygoing atmosphere, peppered with humour.

As we approach the exit, we pass a QR code for visitors to scan, a final callout to those who may have a slice of history buried in their relative’s belongings, a place so many of the objects we’ve seen were discovered. “It’s amazing that there are still things waiting to be found,” Friedlander says as we say goodbye. “We’re now in the generation where the grandparents are dying, the grandchildren see a pile of papers in German and throw them in the bin. This is the last chance to salvage them.”