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."
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?"
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.