I went to the Jewish Museum in Berlin three days ago and had an unusual and unsettling experience. I have been before, and I had written an essay in my first year on the museum, so I already knew a lot about the layout, its installations and its design process.
The Jewish Museum in Berlin was designed by architect Daniel Libeskind who uses space, darkness and voids to create an unsettling experience. Permanent installations there include the Holocaust Tower, a bare, concrete tower with no heating and light only coming from a small slit in the roof. You can hear the outside world as you stand in this tall, concrete tower, knowing that escape is visible but impossible.
When we reached the “Fallen Leaves” art installation, however, I was taken out of my thought bubble. “Fallen Leaves” comprises of thousands of metal faces on the floor. Although not explicitly stated anywhere, you are allowed to walk across these faces, which I had done in my previous visit. It is a very haunting and powerful installation where you really feel what it would be like to be a perpetrator, standing above the victims of the Holocaust. This memorial, however, is not only dedicated to Holocaust victims, but all victims of violence and war. As you walk across the faces of horror you hear unsettling metallic clinks against the wall, leading to a very intrusive but powerful experience.
However, as I started to walk, many people started staring at me. No one else was walking and everyone was staring from the side lines. When I came back a German man who had been watching me, started being very rude and condescending. In German, with a sneer and disgust on his face, he said to me “Do you feel proud, doing that?.” I stared at him blankly and replied in German that it was allowed to walk across. He looked at me as if I were the biggest piece of dirt, as if I were either a neo-Nazi, or an ignorant teenager who found the whole thing a bit of a laugh.
Now, I know he was in the wrong, because I have searched and many sources say you are allowed to walk across the installation, as I had done before. Although I was initially upset of what he thought of me I realised that the installation had worked in many levels of interpretation. It had created a debate about what the appropriate ‘etiquette’ is of approaching a memorial, and indeed the difficulty faced of how to commemorate the fallen in the war effectively. This man thought I was incredibly ignorant and unknowing by walking across the faces, believing it to be disrespectful, not realising I was trying to be respectful by putting myself through an uncomfortable experience to even feel a millionth of a fraction of the horrors of the holocaust. Now, of course it is disrespectful to walk across them, but that is how you are supposed to feel and that is what the artist intended.
What do you think? Would you walk across or would you stand by the side lines? Would you criticise someone for walking over the faces or would you walk over them yourself? I would love to hear your comments.