This review was first published in the print edition of Landfall 241
Helen Watson White
Te Papa to Berlin: The making of two museums by Ken Gorbey (Otago University Press, 2020), 245pp, $39.95
‘Storytelling is perhaps the most potent of humanising forces,’ writes Ken Gorbey, echoing the great Italian Jewish humanist Primo Levi. From a civic job in Hamilton merging the city’s art gallery and Waikato Museum into one building, and after heading Wellington’s project team for the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongawera, likewise a merger of New Zealand’s National Museum and National Art Gallery, Gorbey moved to Berlin to rescue the foundering Jewish Museum Berlin (JMB). While it already had a building of dramatic and unique design, there was no plan for projects to fill it. In all three places the focus became storytelling, with the development of the first two institutions strongly supported by Māori leaders and using foundational Māori concepts of identity and mana.
The Aotearoa New Zealand part of Gorbey’s memoir—a story about stories—makes up only one-third of the volume, yet the effects of his experience of working with Māori in exposing the ‘dark’ side of our national history are felt throughout the remaining two-thirds, beginning with Chapter 7, entitled ‘What’s the Boy from Maungatautari Doing Here [in Berlin]?’ That question was doubtless asked by the existing staff of the JMB as well as by New Zealanders, and indeed prospective readers of this book. It is quite a triumph that Gorbey has been able to ease us through the transitions with humour and humility, so that the development of Germany’s national Jewish museum along the lines of Te Papa becomes understandable and ‘right’.
The JMB was, like Te Papa, intended to represent fully the shameless treatment of minorities, but it was to do much more than that. The new Jewish national museum was charged with presenting not just the history of the Holocaust, but the whole 2000-year story of Jews in Germany, just as Te Papa/Our Place was to represent nothing less than the history of the land and people(s) of Aotearoa: Pacific voyages in waves of immigration; so-called ‘high art’ along with functional design; individual stories alongside cultural narratives.
A focus on storytelling meant that, for both Waikato and Te Papa, a building uniting the art gallery and museum would not be considered in the conventional way as just a home for historic collections. At the JMB, there was no vision for the new building—an extension of the baroque Kollegienhaus (home of the old Berlin City Museum)—beyond a vague expectation that it would house inanimate objects and displays of some kind.
Daniel Libeskind’s design for the new JMB, constructed on war-smashed wasteland in former East Berlin was, for Gorbey, ‘like nothing we had seen before’. Large, coldly metallic—brutal, even—it looked like some sort of industrial structure, but skewed out of normal proportions. Its floormap was the crazy diagonal shape of a lightning bolt writ large. Its vertical elevation was also jagged; nothing was familiar, nothing was square, and its forbidding front face was slashed with narrow windows at seemingly random angles. Gorbey called them ‘terminal wounds’.
The fact that it was empty, however, made it open to possibilities, writes Gorbey: ‘Less than a year since its completion, the building was already timeless, speaking as much of the Thirty Years’ War as Daniel’s take on the Holocaust, a set waiting for Bertolt Brecht to stage Mother Courage and her Children.’ Gorbey often speaks of a museum space, enlivened by exhibitions, as a form of ‘magical’ theatre.
The author was first invited to Berlin in 1999 as part of a review team to assess, in the words of JMB director Michael Blumenthal, ‘where we’re at’. From the first day this proved an agonizing experience. The staff had prepared a single model of a possible (static) exhibition, which meant there was little to assess. Gorbey took the director aside, hardly needing to explain to this Jewish former child-refugee, now a successful New York businessman, how much was at stake: ‘We could not disappoint. The German-Jewish story, and the building, already an architectural masterwork, deserved better.’
The review was quickly reconvened as a workshop, with the visiting team imagining themselves as colleagues. Jim Volkert (at the time leading Washington’s National Museum of the American Indian project) urged the resident staff to pull back and look at the museum space as a whole, asking how the storytelling might be influenced by its ‘bizarre’ architectural environment. Gorbey, in remembering that day, reflects on this theme:
Every other museum I had dealt with had either traditional galleries of rectangular shape or, as in Te Papa, vast open volumes in which we could build what we wanted. But the long string of twisting spaces that made Libeskind’s building was quite different. It was unrelentingly linear. Such a layout … gives direction to visitors as they move from the first experience to the second … and so on. But visitors also like to make their own decisions about what to see and where to go next. This creates a real quandary for the experience developer. If contained and herded, visitors can rebel; if the exhibitions are too unstructured they will lose their way. In both cases they might defect, the official term for giving up and leaving in bad humour.
The review team’s role, as Gorbey saw it, was to ask some fundamental questions: ‘Why should visitors come to the Jewish Museum Berlin? What will they take from their visit? Why should the government fund us? What is the sense of purpose that guides the stories you tell?’
While the team’s conclusions were almost entirely negative, Blumenthal was so impressed with Gorbey’s clear-sightedness that he hired him on the spot to build a future for the JMB that had yet to be envisaged. He said, ‘I need the right person to see this museum through to opening’—in under two years.
This was a huge challenge for Gorbey and later for Wellington writer Nigel Cox, the one staff member he was allowed to bring from the Te Papa project team. From the first, there was the problem outlined by Michael Blumenthal in his Foreword: ‘The Nazis had destroyed not only Jewish life in Germany, but also its symbols and artefacts, so what was there to exhibit?’
This underlying concern was one of the principles addressed in ‘intensive’ Friday conversations between Gorbey and a colleague, fellow-anthropologist Dr Vera Bendt. The very absence of what used to be considered museum material became a major theme, honoured with its own name: ‘missingness’. Alongside project planning meetings, such personal conversations were vital, on multiple fronts, for a New Zealander speaking no German, who came to sense deeply the ‘angst that formed much of the German character. History so close it wounds. Memories like salt in those wounds.’
History, of course, kept happening within the compass of this book, the New York twin-towers outrage assaulting the senses of an exhausted Berlin team who, having celebrated the JMB’s official grand opening on 9 September, were preparing for its unveiling to the public on 11 September 2001.
Gorbey’s memoir, therefore, does not stop with the culmination of twenty-three months’ work centred on Libeskind’s building. Much travelled in the course of his museum-oriented career, he extends his observations on anti-Semitism and nationalism to a broader exploration of values in recent history and in the development of Germany’s newly united liberal democracy.
Throughout the book, personal reflection brings unexpected rewards for the reader. After the ‘desperation’ of management wars at Te Papa, and despite the struggle to apply South Pacific values in a conservative European context, Gorbey admits moments of joy that come with building deep friendships that will outlast his Berlin time. At the lowest point of all, when the effects of 9/11 were being felt all around the world, he celebrated, with partner Susan Foster, the birth of triplets to his daughter Susi and son-in-law Erwan in London; he includes a photo taken some weeks later, of the infants with their father and first-time grandfather.
There are two sections of such candid photos, their placement often making an ironic point. Facing this domestic photo, for instance, is an image of artist Menashe Kadishman’s Shalechet/Falling Leaves: thousands of screaming deathmasks that are stepped on by visitors traversing JMB’s Main Void. Turn the page and you are met by grim Soviet-era statuary photographed on a trip to Moscow. The book (and the JMB) are, Gorbey insists, about life, in its sometimes chaotic variety.
One might expect that a memoir of this kind could be self-absorbed or, at worst, self-serving. There is no trace of this, for the author includes a wide circle of collaborators in both the process and the success of his envisioning, and this rings true. Having visited both Te Papa and the JMB with young relatives, I can attest to the power of these truly inclusive institutions to move people in ways they would not otherwise be moved.
The commitment to change brought by the makers of Te Papa means that it, too, continues to evolve, and the principles that went into its making are alive and well on the other side of the world. When you read of Gorbey’s two museums side by side, and of the millions who have enjoyed them (two million in Te Papa’s first year), you’d be hard-pressed to think of reasons why they should not have been developed in the way that they have.
HELEN WATSON WHITE has been a high-school and university teacher, library assistant, editor and art photographer, and since 1974 has published theatre, book, music, art and opera reviews, along with articles, short stories, poems and photographs.