Maybe it was the weather driving everyone to the lakes, but when we turned up to the Jewish Museum on the gorgeous sunny day it was spookily quiet. The enormous cement block where the museum is housed is in the middle of a square near Marienplatz. We circled it a few times completely ,unsure of where to go. The first time I have ever not known where a museum entrance is. Eventually we tried going through the glass doors of what we thought was a library, but thankfully turned out to be the right place. Not that you would know even on close inspection, there being no signage.
Still confused although ready to go, we bought our tickets, got our guide books in the appropriate language, and a little tag thing that had to be shown at all times. Unfortunately we quickly floundered again; we had no idea how to get into the museum itself and the woman behind the desk had to point it out to us. The walls were made of smooth concrete with all doors built in and no signage yet again, so we could have ended up trying to find out the history of the Jews in the museum staff toilets if she hadn’t intervened.
The museum itself was cold and echoey, and felt rather like entering one of those minimalist designer homes. At the bottom of the entrance stairs a man in a black suit gave us a smile. There was a lift in front of us, and two doors set into the walls either side of us, but no sign as to where to go.
We were lost again.
Eventually, with the help of the attendant in the black suit, we found out where to go. The exhibits on the ground floor itself were interesting. The interactive pieces were fun but there was no instruction on how to use them, so we didn’t get the most out of it.
I had read up about the museum and I knew that its intention was not just to commemorate and discuss what had happened in the Holocaust. It also wanted to show a more complete picture of Jewish identity in Germany, e.g. rites of passage, festivals, etc. Great, I thought, what a perfect thing to do. By not labeling the Jews of Germany as just ‘Holocaust victim’s, they were showing that Judaism was a part of Germany’s past, present and future.
Unfortunately, none of this was being translated very well by the slightly stale, clinical, empty corners of the lower floor. It was dark, it was cold, it was difficult to read the writing and I had the feeling that they had little to fill the cabinets with. I wasn’t really sure what I had learnt about Jewish identity. There no elaboration from the basics and rather than giving ‘the diverse aspects of Jewish identity (website)’ it did make it seem like we were looking at some ancient religion that people knew little about.
We shuffled back out of the door and into the lift for the next floor. The temporary exhibition was called ‘From far far away’, and this was the exhibition that kept me interested. Although once again artifacts were given a mile of space between one another, they felt very real and personal with a human touch that suddenly brought Jewish life in Germany into reality. But again, we were all a little confused. It was only until half way around that I realized my guidebook had descriptions of each of the numbered artifacts, which meant I had to go back and look at them all again. This floor focused on what it was like for Eastern European Jews to come to Munich, particularly as a result of the “quota-refugee” policies of 1991. The little things that people had brought with them to their new home – blankets, pictures, medication, favourite clothes – gave a real depth to the story. And on this floor we discovered the most engaging thing in the museum. We could ‘Russian-a-fy’ (real word, look it up. Don’t, it’s not real), our names. When Eastern European Jews moved into Europe they had to change their name from Cyrillic to Latin alphabet, and this machine gave you a chance to do the reverse. The only thing that spoiled this floor was the sour faced museum attendant who stalked us through the whole exhibition. Maybe she thought three English-speaking girls spelt trouble. Anyway, we felt a little chased out at the end.
Would I suggest going to the Jewish museum? Yes, I would. Because although I don’t think it has quite found its way yet, there’s still things of interest to see. The ‘From far, far away’ exhibits runs until January 2013 and I would encourage people to go and see this.
The cold, austere concrete makes it feel as though you are entering a Holocaust memorial or a museum telling the Jewish story during the war. However inside, they do their best not to focus on this. It all jars, and the end result is a bit jumbled and confused. But to give it it’s credit it only opened in 2007, and it will no doubt he changing rapidly behind the scenes as it fits more comfortably in its skin.