Museums in Berlin, Paris, and Brazil

Today’s major new museum projects—in Berlin, Paris, and Brazil—recall the Crystal Palace of yesterday. What happens when high art meets the world’s fair?

In the age of the “ephemeral museum,” to borrow a phrase from art historian Francis Haskell, masterpieces are as likely to be flying around the world in jets as the cultural travelers in search of them. The most surprising development in the museum world during the past few decades has been a return to the spirit of the 19th-century world expositions, a refashioning based on a commercial model that seems newly appropriate in an increasingly mercurial marketplace.

BERLIN’S MUSEUMSINSEL, OR MUSEUM ISLAND, IS THE MOST traditional of these new “global islands,” representing something of a return to an Enlightenment model for exhibiting the world. The complex of five museums sits on a real island in the Spree River, right in the center of old Berlin, near the site of the city’s earliest original settlement, dating back to the 13th century. When the Wall came down and Germany moved toward Reunification, the idea took hold that Berlin’s collections, split between East and West after World War II, should be reunified as well. These collections—which included sculpture, painting, and Germany’s monumental archaeological spoils (the Ishtar Gate from Babylon, the Market Gate from Miletus, and the Pergamon Altar)—had been amassed for the Museumsinsel, which opened its first museum, the Altes Museum, in 1829. (The last, the Pergamon, completed in 1930, takes its name from the massive altar it houses.) The museums suffered considerable bombing damage during World War II. After the war, the island ended up in the Eastern sector. Some of the museums were partially rebuilt; others, like the Neues Museum, remained in ruins.

The characteristics of the world’s fair—fantastic buildings of glass and steel, interminable lines, the exhibition space as a sort of wonderland, the exotic costumes and artifacts—have taken root in our most ambitious museums. By an odd coincidence, three recent expansions or reconfigurations—the Museumsinsel in Berlin, the Guggenheims planned for New York and Brazil, and the Musée des Arts Premiers in Paris—are to be built on waterfronts, just as “White City,” Chicago’s 1893 World’s Fair, was erected on Lake Michigan. That the 21st century’s first significant museums are located on islands, whether real or man-made, solidifies one’s sense that they are fantasy destinations only loosely tethered to a particular place. Like the expos of the past, they promise to deliver the world in all its fairytale grandeur.

Those who lived in the East viewed the Museumsinsel very differently from those in the West. West Germans tended to find the stodgily official architecture of Neoclassical colonnades and grandiose rotundas oppressive and reactionary. For Sten Nadolny, a well-known novelist and historian with a particular interest in Berlin’s cultural history, the Museumsinsel is more a floating sarcophagus of art than a vital cultural resource. “I like museums and I like islands,” Nadolny remarks, “but museum-islands?I think immediately of Böcklin’s painting Toteninsel, the ‘Island of the Dead.'” (This painting, a Romantic vision showing a ghostly visitor landing on an island of cliffs and graves, happens to be in the Museumsinsel’s Alte Nationalgalerie.)

To Holger Teschke, a writer and former dramaturge of Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble in East Berlin, the Museumsinsel was the exact opposite. Teschke grew up on the Baltic island of Rügen, made famous by Caspar David Friedrich’s dreamlike landscapes of solitary trees, chalk cliffs, and ruins. The war was not really palpable in Rügen, and it wasn’t until his first visit to Berlin, with his father in 1961, that the five-year-old Teschke saw its effects. They went to the Brandenburg Gate, and there was the Wall—”It was the end of the world,” Teschke remembers feeling. “Then we went down to the Museumsinsel, and that was the opening of the world: Egypt, Greece, and the Orient, all in one day. It was a Treasure Island for me.”

Despite financial woes and Reunification blues, Berlin is forging ahead with its plans for the Museumsinsel, and the “show it all” spirit may be its greatest strength. Instead of hiding from the past, the museums will mount an exhibition of it, of which they themselves form an integral part.

Treasure Island or Island of the Dead?It fell to Michael Naumann, former minister of culture, and currently director of the newspaper Die Zeit, to develop, with a board of advisers, a strategy for the Museumsinsel as it enters the third millennium. Peter Klaus-Schuster, director since 1999 of Berlin’s state museums, has announced an ambitious redesign. This will include elaborate underground passageways linking the buildings and the reinstallation of many of the original displays so that the whole sweep of European art from classical sculpture to 19th-century painting is on view.

When I asked Naumann if this was a return to mothballed principles of aesthetic universality, he vigorously denied it. “If there is any ‘ideology’ behind the concept,” he insisted, “it’s, show it all.” I questioned whether things could ever be that simple in Berlin, where the Museumsinsel is inevitably linked to the Prussian Empire of its origins, to its role as a showplace for Nazi Germany, and to half a century as a sad little island in the gloomy sea of the Communist bloc. “Personally,” Naumann replied, “I do not believe in the transfer of guilt onto buildings.” But James Young, author of The Texture of Memory, a study of Holocaust memorials, and the lone American member of the advisory committee for the projected Holocaust memorial in Berlin, had a different response: “How does a city like Berlin turn its cultural museum matrix, so redolent of a nationalist past, into a universal center for Europe?”

IF BERLIN HAS A MUSEUM ISLAND, THE GUGGENHEIM HAS SOMETHING like a museum island chain. If you listen to art critics and art historians, they’ll tell you that Thomas Krens, the director of the Guggenheim, is brilliant but evil, a man who “doesn’t give a damn about art.” The Guggenheim’s current plans include a huge new headquarters in downtown Manhattan, to be built on piers jutting into the East River.


In fact, the idea of a Guggenheim branch or branches in Brazil grew out of preparations for “Body and Soul.” When several Brazilian cities—including Rio, Recife, and Salvador in the northeast—expressed a strong interest in a Bilbao of their own, Krens, Frank Gehry, and others made a widely publicized exploratory trip there. “The cultural story here is unbelievably rich,” Krens told reporters at a news conference. “It is time to have a cultural trade that runs north and south, not just east and west.” And Gehry, smitten with Rio and the dilapidated waterfront plaza projected as a museum site, said that he would recommend “getting into the gritty” of the city. The results of a feasibility study are expected soon. Presumably, the study will clarify some of the financial and conceptual challenges of this two-in-one museum. But one suspects, too, that Krens and Gehry are waiting to see how “Body and Soul” is received to gauge whether the public shares their obvious enthusiasm for Afro-Brazilian exoticism.

The tremendous success of Frank Gehry’s Bilbao Guggenheim has emboldened the Guggenheim to consider an even more breathtaking expansion: two new museums (“two branches of one museum,” a Guggenheim official corrected me) in Brazil, and a show called “Brazil: Body and Soul” in New York this fall that will then travel to Bilbao.

Edward Sullivan, an NYU professor who is heading the show’s curatorial team, describes “Body and Soul” as a “logistical nightmare” out of a Werner Herzog movie. A huge Baroque altarpiece, restored by Guggenheim conservators, will fill the Frank Lloyd Wright rotunda on Fifth Avenue at 89th Street. With its twin focus on Baroque religious intensity and 20th-century Brazilian art, which relies heavily on multisensory stimuli, the “Body and Soul” show aims to be, in Sullivan’s words, a “stimulator of experience.”

THE SHEER, BREATHTAKING, FANTASY-DRIVEN AMBITION OF THE Guggenheim—have the Guggenheim fly Brazil to you or fly down to Rio to see the new Guggenheim—is one of many aspects of the new global islands that hark back to the world’s fairs and international expos of the 19th and 20th centuries. An exotic-sounding museum planned for the banks of the Seine in Paris ties the knot even more tightly. The site for the Musée des Arts Premiers, also known as the Musée du Quai Branly, is what used to be the Isle des Cygnes, or Island of the Swans—the very site of the Universal Exposition of 1937.

With the Quai Branly, as with the Guggenheim’s “Brazil: Body and Soul” show, we are meant to move beyond a colonial view of other cultures. But in promising today’s museum-goers some spiritual high once available only in Brazilian villages or South Sea islands, these “global islands” seem, at first glance, to have reverted to the promises of all those earlier expos, with their Wild Men of Borneo, cannibals from the Fiji Islands, and authentic American Indian villages.

What’s new is that museums, often conceived as massive storehouses for the world’s treasures, now aspire to weightlessness and spirituality, impermanence and constant change. For all the hoopla surrounding their creation and proliferation, there is something speculative about Berlin’s unifying and dividing Museumsinsel, the Guggenheim’s multiplying Gehrys, and Nouvel’s evanescent sacred wood. Bilbao was brilliant, a coup no one quite expected, but the luster is already dimming, and stains are spreading over the titanium exterior. Will cultural pilgrims flock to the reconfigured Museum Island in Berlin or to Jean Nouvel’s tribal retreat on the Island of the Swans?Maybe, for a few years. But then there will be a hunger for newer islands, in ever more exotic or “gritty” locales.

The French press was initially critical of the uneasy liaison of art and ethnography. If African masks and American totems were great art, it was argued, why not put them in the Louvre rather than in a ghetto of their own?But when Nouvel won the architectural competition, his project was widely praised for the way he had partially hidden the museum in a garden that reflected some of the collection’s themes. Nouvel’s light and airy design is meant to spark “a feeling of spirituality” in which “a Parisian garden becomes a sacred wood, with the museum melting into its depths.” Nouvel wants visitors to be shaken loose from “present Western contingencies” and to enter a world in which “the most advanced techniques”—huge expanses of glass, hidden sources of light—create the illusion of “a simple shelter.”

This expanse of land lies directly opposite the Palais de Tokyo, a surviving building from the same fair (and now home to the Musée d’Art Moderne), and just around a bend in the river from the Tour Eiffel, the main attraction of the Expo of 1889. For the new project, the French architect Jean Nouvel is designing a museum of ethnology to house a major portion of the collections now in the Musée de l’Homme. (The objects come from the Americas, Oceania, Asia, and Africa, to be specific; the “European” ethnographic collections will be in a new museum proposed to be built in Marseilles circa 2008.)


The Museumsinsel is currently open to the public; renovations will be completed by 2010. The Guggenheim’s “Brazil: Body and Soul” show runs from September 21 to January 20 in New York City.

Christopher Benfey is a professor of English and comparative literature at Mount Holyoke College.