Danish Jewish Museum by Daniel Libeskind
The Danish Jewish Museum hides well behind a solid steel door in one side of the old Royal Library.
The Jewish community in Denmark and Copenhagen is very small numerically. But it has a 400-year old history, displayed in this tiny museum.
The museum – somewhat appropriately – takes up a part of the Royal Library that dates back to 1622. It was originally a boathouse by a navy basin that was later filled up and today makes the garden.
History has many fascinating layers in this area of Copenhagen as has the Jewish religion and culture. The garden itself is a bit of a hidden gem, and furthermore, the steel door enforces a sense of secrecy and enigma.
One of the absolute top international ‘starchitects’ of the past 30 years, Daniel Libeskind, designed the interior exhibition space. He is a Polish American of Jewish heritage and designed the enormous Jewish Museum in Berlin.
Among other very prestigious and monumental buildings around the world, the Ground Zero and One World Trade Center in New York are probably the most famous.
Typically, historic and cultural layers inspire his designs. He often interprets references to events, ideas, and connections, by mapping them as a geometric underlay for the actual spacial design. It is a highly intellectual process of deep analysis and interpretation.
Need to know
The Jewish history stretches over millennia. But the holocaust during World War II plays a key role in a modern view on Jewish culture. And the Danish holocaust-history is one of saving Jewish lives rather than genocide.
A (questionable) collaboration between the Nazi occupation and the Danish government protected Danish Jews from persecution. The Danish government remained in place until 1943 when popular strikes and protests reached a critical level.
The Nazi occupation took over the administration and was about to initiate the persecution of Jews.
However, the plan leaked to the Jewish community, and 7000 Jews escaped to safety in neutral Sweden. Many Danes housed and hid them on the way. Fishermen risked their lives by sailing them by nighttime the short way across the sound.
The few hundred Jews who didn’t escape were sent to prison in Denmark. Or, due to Danish lobbying, only to the ‘best’ of the Nazi work camps, where most of them survived.
Generally speaking, The Danish role in World War II is much less heroic. In recent decades, a more nuanced and critical discussion has been raised. But by the end of WWII, these events helped to place Denmark on the side of the allied powers, rather than as a Nazi ally.
This ‘deed’ remains the primary legend of the holocaust in Denmark. And it is also key to Libeskind’s design of the museum. The letters of the Jewish word, Mitzvah, was the graphic underlay for the floor plan for the exhibition design. Mitzvah means both ‘commandment’ and the ‘deed’ performed to fulfil this commandment.
As a more concrete reference, the wooden plank floors slope slightly up and down to give you the unstable feeling from a small fishing boat.
Neither of these inspirations is apparent or directly accessible. The references are lost on anyone who didn’t read about them.
On a very general level, though, the complex spaces and shapes pass a strong sense of the ancient mysticism and multi-layered meaning and cross-referencing that makes Jewish culture and religious practice both fascinating and incomprehensible.
So for me, not well versed in Hebrew, or in Jewish culture or history, this intellectualised background adds no real quality to my experience. And in my view, architecture is not an intellectual discipline – or at least not primarily. I don’t like to need pre-knowledge or a manual to be able to ‘use’ architecture. I like to know but I don’t like to need to know. So to speak…
But then again – is this museum actually…:
Libeskind’s work carries so much storytelling and interpretation that I would argue that it is sometimes more art than architecture.
The Danish Jewish Museum is perhaps the best example since it is an exhibition design within an existing building. The Jewish Museum Berlin is similar in its intellectual inspiration and geometric play. But that is most certainly an actual building.
Maybe this classification has little value altogether, and I’m not trying to disqualify Libeskind’s architecture. But I find that Libeskind’s approach is almost as far from the rational, functionalist, Danish mindset as I can imagine.
I think it is safe to say, that the artful expression dominates the functional aspects of his works.
The Danish Jewish Museum is a fascinating and beautiful ‘Wunderkammer’. A tiny, imaginative other world, that opens up as a nice surprise once you’ve slipped through the slightly disturbing steel door.
It is a very small exhibition space, so – unlike the Berlin museum – it is easy to overcome.