Weltmuseum Wien

Christian Schicklgruber

Director, Weltmuseum Wien

Weltmuseum Wien

1010 Wien, Neue Burg, Austria


European Museum Forum / Kenneth Hudson Award 2019


The Weltmuseum Wien and The Principles That Shaped Its New Permanent Exhibition



After many years of extensive reconstruction, the Weltmuseum Wien, one of the most important ethnographic museums in the world, finally opened its doors in late 2017. As the very heart of the new Museum, the permanent exhibition has been redesigned from the ground up. 14 galleries feature the core of the permanent exhibition with 3,127 objects combined with contemporary interpretations. The range of themes extends from traditional ethnography up to art history, from the historical circumstances surrounding the acquisition of objects up to the beliefs of various world religions up to the personalities of collectors – to mention just a few examples.

When visitors find stories about cultural diversity and about relations between cultures they should be caused to question their own views of life. Insight into the life of the "Other" must lead to questions regarding the "self". Our esteemed visitors must find the answers for themselves, as the Museum cannot and should not provide them.

A year after the reopening the European Museum Forum presented the Weltmuseum Wien with the esteemed Kenneth Hudson Award. The jury justified its decision as follows: “Few European museums face in depth the colonial past or address its continued legacies in the 21st century. With unique intellectual honesty, the Weltmuseum Wien acknowledges the dilemmas embedded in its collections and strives to create a new identity as a contemporary museum that celebrates the cultural abundance of the planet and promotes respect for human rights, integration and cultural coexistence.”

This explanatory statement perfectly reflects the basic principles that guided the conceptual design of the permanent exhibition. The following considerations outline the result of long and extensive discussions between all the curators involved.
With developments in ethnological research, ethnological museums must say goodbye to the initial positions of their work, positions which until recently were held to be secure. Three main facts in particular demand new solutions:

firstly, an overview of “the Other” is not possible;
secondly, no unambiguous meaning can be assigned to a single object;
thirdly, the museum has abdicated its position as a unique and authoritative institution and has acknowledged a diversity of voices.


An overview of “the Other” is not possible

The entire world cannot be simulated with encyclopaedic aspirations in a museum, as one perhaps believed earlier. The world is too big for that, too diverse. The world cannot be replicated in 3127 objects. For this reason, the old systems of categorisation in ethnological museums, such as "region", "religion", or "culture" do not work anymore. These time-honoured orientations or categorisations, which for a long time appeared secure, can no longer be offered. Instead a gallery under the title e.g. “China” short stories are narrated and scenes created with objects in the sense of metaphors, and in these stories the "Other" emerges. They are then fitted into the broader framework of a common humanity. We cannot do more than open such windows; only one detail framed by this window can appear. A sequence of such details leads to a picture of the diversity of cultural expressions.

No unambiguous meaning can be assigned to a single object

It is the object that lends the ethnographic museum its singular position, when it comes to giving an account of foreign worlds. Each thing in a museum has its very own biography. It can relate who produced it; who used it in what way and on what occasions; who bequeathed it to whom; who impressed somebody with it; what its original possessor thought when they held it in their hands; what understanding of the world accompanied its usage; how it lent meaning to the world of its original owner; who removed it why from its original world and brought it to a museum. The catalogue of questions that a thing opens up – and can answer – is almost unlimited.

The information that is finally given is strictly confined by the assembling of these objects into a concrete situation, into a narrative.

Hundreds of thousands of things are waiting in the depot of the Museum to be put on display so that they can tell their story. In the Weltmuseum Wien only 1,3 % of the total number of objects managed to reach the light of the permanent exhibition. The selection from this diverse and multifaceted ensemble of objects from daily life, tools, articles of clothing, ritual implements, curiosities, exotica, or works of art is already an active process on the part of a narrating individual, and ultimately sheds light on his or her view of the world.

This leads us to the third initial position.

The museum has abdicated its position as a unique and authoritative institution

All stories told in the 14 galleries also talk about different narrators.

Theoretical insights unmasked the position of the museum as an authoritative institution with a single and unique perspective as a construct when it comes to the explanation of cultural phenomena. The museum as an enunciator of consistent statements does not speak anymore. Rather, the standpoint of specific narrators defines the way of seeing other cultures and their attempted explanation. In this way, the museum as a single enunciator of consistent statements has split up into a number of individual people – out of the unique institution museum, a plurality of narrators has emerged.

To lay this open to the visitor by providing different voices - be it texts written by curators with their personal name given or by comments of members of the so called “source communities” given on video screens - is much more honest than any simulated objectivity and any claim to truth. This honesty brings with it the risk that the visitor is disappointed not to be presented with a simple – and authoritative – explanation of the world, which they may understand, unquestioned, as "true".


The Weltmuseum Wien faces its entanglement with the colonial past

Visitors of ethnographic exhibitions deserve an answer to their questions how the objects came to the museum. Even the more when it happened under highly questionable circumstances.

Several galleries in our permanent exhibition are dedicated to our commitment of coming to terms with our past and its entanglement in the colonial context as well as our obligation of bringing light into the darkness around how our collections were acquired.

As our Museum was one of those benefitting from Europe’s colonial expansion, the stories behind many objects and how they were acquired are full of appropriation and colonial violence. Although the colonies gradually fought for and were granted their independence after World War II, it was as if time stood still in ethnographic museums. Today we face our colonial past not only to raise awareness but also to learn from it. After all, how we deal with our collections and the people related to them in the present will shape the image of ethnographic collections in the future.

A final word: with their collections, the curators of the Weltmuseum Wien are responsible for the fact that the boundary to “the Other” becomes permeable, and that it is ultimately removed due to the recognition of a mutual humanity. Our visitors should return home with the experience of the universality and diversity of humanity.


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