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. 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 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."
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 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.