Communication Currents

A Double Heterotopia

February 1, 2012
Intercultural Communication

Explaining the educational objectives of the Jewish Museum Berlin for its fully-curated public opening, Director W. Michael Blumenthal identified two main purposes: to tell the history of Jewish life in Germany over the previous two millennia, and to demonstrate the importance of minority tolerance in any particular society. While the former focused on the particulars of the Jewish Museum Berlin’s displays – the main exhibition was organized in a straightforward linear chronology, the latter layer of meaning was a principle of community divorced from the uniqueness of Germany’s Jewish history. The two educational missions of the museum seem designed to appeal to two distinct audiences courted by the museum: Germans and international tourists. 

Of course, to make this layered communication strategy work in the Jewish Museum Berlin, it had to be embodied in the selection and arrangement of displays. How could the museum displays both satisfy domestic audiences interested in Jewish life in Germany and a large group of international tourists that had little unique interest in Jewish-German history? I suggest that the curators had to devise two different ways that visitors could make meaning from and connect to the exhibitions. To accomplish that goal, they placed Shalechet, a contemporary installation by Israeli artist Menashe Kadishman, in a central part of the museum architecture so that visitors would encounter it immediately prior to beginning the museum’s main exhibition.

Most of the Jewish Museum Berlin is designed to stress the interconnection between Jewish and German history, catering to a German audience that would want to identify with the history of an important national diaspora (a cultural group residing in a place different from their original homeland). In world-renowned architect Daniel Libeskind’s building design, two lines intersect at several points – one is a straight line of empty space, while the other is a meandering line that houses the main exhibition. Along with the erratic, zinc-clad Libeskind building’s contrast to its 18th century baroque counterpart, the Collegienhaus (the two buildings are only connected via underground passage), the two lines symbolize a difficult relationship between German and Jewish history; they are inextricably connected, though often perceived as autonomous (see the first image). The main exhibition’s narrative of German-Jewish historical progression reinforces the point. It highlights both the long tenure of Jewish settlement in the region and Jewish contributions to the development of German society. The overall message is clear: Jews, even through periods of persecution, have played an important role in many of the positive intellectual, political, and social developments of German society, and as such, their history and culture is an integral part of Germany.

Although it is easy to see how the museum could attract interested visitors from Germany, it would be more difficult for a non-German or non-Jewish visitor to feel connected to the museum’s content. To compensate, the museum embedded another layer of meaning into the exhibition, reframing Jewish-German history as a lesson in the importance of tolerance. The placement of Shalechet (or Fallen Leaves) in the “Memory Void,” a bare concrete room on the first floor, was an important part of this dual-message strategy (see the second image). Appropriately, Kadishman dedicated his artwork two different groups: while primarily an installation dedicated to the victims of the Holocaust, he also expanded it to include all innocent victims of violence and war. Over 10,000 steel-cut, anonymous faces with expressions of horror are strewn across the floor, with visitors completing the artwork by walking upon them. The slippage in meaning between the specific event of the Holocaust and the larger concern about the victims of violence recasts German violence against Jews as an example potentially analogous (in type, not magnitude) to other acts of intolerance closer to a visitor’s personal experience. Visitors, now metaphorically participating in violence by standing upon the pained faces of anonymous others, they are implicitly called upon to ask: “in what way have I participated in, or benefitted from, violence against innocent others?” With the history of German-Jewish relations successfully reframed as an example of both the benefits of tolerance and the extreme costs of intolerance, a visitor with little interest in the specific details of Jewish history in Germany could still find value in the museum’s displays and identify with its conceptual purpose. 

Those interested in communication in an era of increasing globalization could learn from the Jewish Museum Berlin. Visitor statistics available in the museum’s annual reports, which show strong international patronage, provide anecdotal evidence of the success of the museum’s multilayered communication strategy. The push to appeal to international audiences is not accidental; Berlin, like many other cities, has been working very hard to market itself as a tourist destination. Layering different meanings in messages, each targeted at a particular demographic, seems to be a potential strategy for dealing with increasing audience diversity. Finding consistent, though distinct, points of connection with which various audience members can identify is not a new idea for skilled communicators, though the Jewish Museum Berlin may show just how useful, perhaps even essential, such a strategy is in today’s globalized world. 

The case of the Jewish Museum Berlin might also help other museums design displays to increase visitor traffic. Many cultural history museums perform an essential educational function. However, the cost of running and maintaining a history museum often requires that it boosts patronage beyond local residents. For museums caught in the predicament of needing to cater to both local needs and outside audiences, the communicative strategy adopted by the Jewish Museum Berlin could be instructive. By identifying an important idea that the history of a particular locale illustrates, such as tolerance for cultural diversity in the case of Berlin’s Jewish citizens, it may be possible to make the same displays meaningful to multiple types of patrons. Providing the additional layer of meaning based upon an abstract principle could make the difference between a busy museum full of interested tourists and a poorly attended one struggling to survive.

Image 1: Exterior of the Jewish Museum Berlin, bird’s-eye view of the Libeskind building. © Jewish Museum Berlin. Photo: Jens Ziehe.

Image 2: Interior of Libeskind building, Jewish Museum Berlin, with Memory Void installation Shalechet. © Jewish Museum Berlin. Photo: Marion Roßner.

About the author (s)

Brent Allen Saindon

Davis & Elkins College