New Director sees Berlin's Jewish Museum as a place for debate
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New Director sees Berlin's Jewish Museum as a place for debate
Artwork on dpisplay at the Jewish Museum Berlin, Aug. 12, 2020. Hetty Berg, the museum's director, wants the institution to become a cultural hub for the German capital, enabling difficult discussions without succumbing to their rancor. Mustafah Abdulaziz/The New York Times.

by Melissa Eddy

BERLIN (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- On her first day as the director of the Jewish Museum Berlin, Hetty Berg sat alone in her third-floor office, looked into a camera and introduced herself to her new team of around 160 people, most of them stuck at home because of the coronavirus lockdown.

It was not how Berg, 59, had envisioned her start at the helm of one of Europe’s leading museums. She was taking up the position nine months after its previous director had stepped down following a furor in which critics said the institution had become too political and had lost its focus on explaining Jewish history.

“That was a very surreal beginning,” she said of that virtual meeting in April.

Still, it was important to reach out to her team, Berg said, to communicate who she was and to hear their ideas of where the museum should be going.

“Our core task is to present Jewish life in the past and the present,” she said in an interview last week, before the museum’s reopening Sunday after a five-month closure. “On the other hand, we also need to address the dynamic and complex discussions that are going on in German society, always from a Jewish perspective.”

Perhaps the thorniest of those issues include rising anti-Semitism — 2019 saw a 17% increase in anti-Semitic crimes, including an attempted attack on a synagogue, according to Germany’s domestic security agency — and the boycott, divestment and sanctions, or BDS, movement against Israel. BDS is particularly sensitive in Germany, where protecting Israel is a cornerstone of its postwar foreign policy.

It was the museum’s stance on BDS that ultimately cost Berg’s predecessor, Peter Schäfer, a widely respected German scholar of Judaism, his job: He stepped down in June 2019 after the museum’s Twitter account shared an article criticizing German lawmakers for declaring the movement anti-Semitic. This followed criticism of Schäfer’s decisions to invite a Palestinian scholar to give a lecture at the museum and to give a personal tour to the cultural director of the Iranian Embassy.

Berg has said that she rejects the movement and does not intend to invite any BDS activists to discussions at the Jewish Museum. (The museum has not yet given details of its exhibitions and programs for the coming season, and Berg declined to comment before the announcement.)

Meron Mendel, the director of the Anne Frank Educational Center in Frankfurt, said, “I do not envy Ms. Berg her position.”

“Certain aspects of what her predecessor chose to present were questionable,” Mendel said, but, he added, so were the string of firings and departures that came as a result. “I think it is tragic that debates about important issues end up in calls for resignation,” he said.

Berg, who, unlike her predecessor, is Jewish, spent 30 years at the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam and was involved in the creation in 2012 of the Jewish Cultural Quarter, including the historical museum, a children’s museum, a functioning synagogue with a 200-year-old library and a Holocaust museum and memorial.

In those three decades in Amsterdam, Berg worked in a range of curatorial and administrative roles. “I really know museum work from inside out,” she said, “from the collections, exhibitions, programming, branding, managing.”

Berg was very clear about whom the Jewish Museum Berlin was for.

“This museum is a museum for everybody who is interested in Jewish history and culture and the events that we offer,” Berg said. “It is for Jews and non-Jews.”

The only way it can serve that mission is by insisting on its independence as a cultural institution, she said, and by fostering discussion on challenging issues through its temporary exhibitions and accompanying programs.

“What I think is the problem at the moment is that everything is so polarized and discussions are conducted in such an aggressive way that it almost becomes impossible,” Berg said. “I see it as quite a challenge for this museum.”

Mendel said that because debates in Germany on issues like anti-Semitism, racism and far-right extremism were so fraught at the moment, it was more important than ever for a prominent institution such as the Jewish Museum to provide a space for diverse voices.

“I think it would be too bad if the Jewish Museum Berlin concedes this important role in fostering debate and just concentrates on Judaica from the 17th and 18th centuries,” he said.

A new permanent exhibition at the museum, unveiled when it reopened Sunday, takes visitors through 1,700 years of Jewish history in Germany, grouping the exhibits in five chronological chapters. Interspersed throughout the exhibition are breakout areas that explore enduring themes, such as music, the Sabbath and creation myths.

Presented throughout is the idea that the Jewish experience has always involved being at home in multiple cultures simultaneously. Visitors first encounter the idea in floating letters from the Latin and Hebrew alphabets projected onto the stairway that leads into the building. These then form the names of places in Europe important to Jewish history.

Diversity is another central theme, whether in the myriad objects from the museum’s own collection or the different interpretations of what it means to be Jewish in Germany today, heard in the voices of 21 Jews who talk about their lives in Yael Reuveny’s video installation “Mesubin,” or “The Gathered.”

“Our stance is that we tell culture and history from Jewish perspectives,” Berg said, stressing the plural. “There is not just one Jewish perspective, and you will see that in the core exhibition.”

This is the first major refresh of the permanent collection since the museum was opened in 2001. Since then, its collection has grown exponentially, and the new show draws on the wealth of those stores: More than two-thirds of the roughly 1,000 objects on display — including Torah scrolls, flamenco dresses and opera glasses — belong to the museum.

There is plenty of seating throughout the exhibition, which curators said was intended to encourage discussions among visitors. A special “debate room” aimed at school classes offers prerecorded arguments from sociologists and experts on opposite sides of an issue such as latent anti-Semitism in German society.

The point is that there are no right answers: Opposing views are presented to encourage visitors to question their own assumptions.

“We are not here to present ready-made opinions and positions,” Berg said.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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