Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Dumb and dumber

The photographs above are of the interior of the Jewish Museum in Berlin. Look familiar? They might do, as their development was directed from one of the developers of Te Papa Tongarewa in Wellington, Ken Gorbey. He also directed the Waikato Art Museum in the late 1970s and people who know it from that time, will feel even a greater sense of the familiar looking at these images. As with Te Papa, Gorbey and his team determined “that the aim of the museum is to educate and inform primarily young people and family groups with little or no background knowledge in the area.” Here they started with an amazing building designed by Daniel Libeskind. Dramatic, metaphoric, soaring, it is not exactly family-friendly but it is certainly inspiring and exciting. And here we have a paradox. The building confronts the tragedy of the Holocaust while the internal displays attempt to tell the centuries-long story of Jewish culture in Germany. The problem is that the building sets a rigorous agenda and the displays come off as tentative, small scale and banal. Many of the techniques used are corny beyond belief. Our favourite has got to be the story of garlic revealed as you open the giant fibreglass cloves. Where Libeskind’s forms have been allowed to intrude on the interiors (many of the slashing glass ‘windows’ have been covered up), the result is bizarre. Stories told with large photos, wall texts and a few objects in cases seem to be turning their backs on the great struggle going on the in the building’s construction. To us the most compelling object was a roll of yellow fabric printed with infamous yellow stars ready for cutting out and stitching on lapels. The material with the most potential was undoubtedly the amazing films often shown in uncomfortable theatrettes or in awkward passages. You do have to wonder why the project team didn’t step up to the challenge of the building instead of trying to disguise it with false walls and 70s museum design techniques. Imagine a museum that used moving image and architectural structure to mourn and celebrate. The past and the present combined. What else are cultures about if not that?
Images: Cardboard soldiers and plaster-of-Paris ladies help create “context”. Middle, learning about garlic in three easy stages. Bottom, Libeskind versus museum display.