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.
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.
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.
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.)