Berlin's Jewish Museum starts to yield its secrets

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Imagine a museum with nothing to show, a haunted castle in concrete, its walls all askew. Such a building, designed by the star architect Daniel Libeskind, was one of Berlin's main tourist attractions, drawing 350,000 visitors in the past two years. But now they have filled it with artefacts and the management is bracing for a big drop in traffic.

This weekend the controversial Jewish Museum – nearly 30 years in the making – begins to yield its secrets. A series of glitzy openings will kick off tomorrow night with a concert of Mahler's Seventh Symphony, conducted by the equally controversial Jewish-Argentinian Wagner provocateur, Daniel Barenboim. Leading Jewish personalities from around the world have been jostling for the scarce VIP tickets for months.

But these will be tense celebrations. Design purists complain that Libeskind's magical creation should have been spared the vulgarities of internal decor and computer animations. Meanwhile, the sensitive debate over the nature and depiction of Jewish life in the city that conceived the Holocaust rages on.

The public will not find out until next week whether critics' fears of a Disneyesque theme park have been justified. The management has forsaken the usual sneak previews. Not even Chancellor Gerhard Schröder knows what he will find inside on his Sunday night tour.

But this is one museum where content never mattered, and money was no object. It had nothing to exhibit. The contents of the prewar Jewish Museum were either torched or scattered to the winds.

While Berlin is replete with mementoes of destruction, from the villa in Wannsee, where the Final Solution was planned, to Sachsenhausen concentration camp on the outskirts, it had little to pin on Libeskind's crooked walls under the heading "Jewish life".

Thus it almost inevitably ended up with a museum that had barely any display space. This zigzag of a building is huge, but its dominant features are the "voids" – allegories to the loss suffered by Jewish culture. The visitor proceeds through a dingy maze towards a dark oppressive chamber – a dead end representing the Holocaust. One false exit out of the concrete colossus leads to the so-called Garden of Exile, a dizzy jungle of pillars jutting at all angles.

Along the journey, tourists encounter more geometrical chaos, dim light and sloping walls. There are a few display cabinets here and there, but the overall effect is barren. It is here that the centuries-old Jewish presence in Germany will be feted from next week.

Michael Blumenthal, a former US treasury secretary, who took over as director of the museum four years ago, admits that his is by no means an ideal venue. "The complex, symbol-laden architecture has posed our exhibition designers unusual tasks," he said.

"We want to tell a story so we wrote a script like in a film with the high and low points of the 2,000-year history. We don't have much that is funny, but it is not always a sad museum." Only one of the 15 sections will address the lowest point: the Nazi era.

Mr Blumenthal, a Jew born near Berlin, scoured the world for items that might achieve this purpose. The pride of the exhibition is a 10th-century copy of a decree issue by the Roman emperor Constantine in 321, which is the first historical reference to the existence of a Jewish community in Germany. The document is on loan from the Vatican.

The cabinets will contain snapshots of Jews, prominent and ordinary, down the ages. Visitors will also be able to admire such curiosities as a circumcision set from 1801, borrowed from the Jewish Museum in New York.

Some of that empty space, though perhaps not the sacrosanct "voids", will be animated with computer gimmickry. Again, the organisers are walking a perilous tightrope between justified infotainment and inappropriate levity.

Ken Gorbey, the project designer from New Zealand, promised: "We are not going to be a Disneyland, but we are go-ing to use modern techniques."

Even Libeskind, an American Jew born in Poland, accepts that his creation could do with lightening up. "It is not a Holocaust Museum, after all," he told the German weekly Die Zeit. "Up until now the emptiness dominated, and in that way the effect of the building was to concentrate too much on the extinguishing of Jewish culture."

This was patently one-sided, since it did not die, not even in Germany, where there is once again a thriving community of some 100,000 Jews – a tenth of them living in the capital. Many Berlin Jews are ambivalent towards a building inflicted on their city as an open sore, but one feature will be warmly welcomed: The Jewish Museum will provide a home to a decent kosher restaurant.