The House of Austrian History is a young museum. It opened, federally funded, in November 2018. Following a decades long and complex discussion about the concept of a national history museum the house opened within a few months with a main exhibition that is constantly changed and various other formats for discussing historical context that are relevant in the present. The House of Austrian History is an open and accessible discussion forum which seeks new museological paths in engaging broad audiences in a dialogue about Austria’s contemporary history.
In order to achieve this mission, a main focus was placed on innovative educational and event programming as well as on allowing the public to extend or change the museum's narratives – digitally and analogously. Furthermore, creative art projects, interdisciplinary research and critical publications highlight multiple perspectives on Austria’s present and past. The House of Austrian History aims to open up various interpretations of history and stimulate discussion between different communities about the past, the present, and how one influences the other. The museum’s opening exhibition, inaugurated in November 2018, focuses on Austria’s turbulent history from 1918 to the present and was designed to make marginalised narratives visible.
Being the recipient of the Kenneth Hudson Award “given to a museum, person, project or a group of people who have demonstrated the most unusual, daring, and, perhaps, controversial achievement that challenges common perceptions of the role of museums in society” brought great joy and reinforcement as it highlights the core principles and philosophies of our approach: innovation, presenting a multiperspective narrative, questioning the authority of a cultural institution and offering an analytical outlook.
Reacting to voices from community spokespersons, the museum offers the public unexpected insights beyond one homogenous, nationalised historical narrative. Additionally, it considers moral issues of exhibiting history, e.g. by displaying violence, especially that of National Socialism, without perpetuating propaganda among the visitors. Pictures and other material that solely aim at the humiliation of victims, most notably examples of perpetrator photography, have been avoided in favour of objects that tell similar stories but from a position empathetic with the victims or even produced by the victims themselves. Thereby, the exhibitions avoid to silence victims of past atrocities as well as the contemporary visitors. To foster awareness for the position of guests, the museum often focusses on individual perspectives and highlights the agency of people in historical and contemporary contexts.
The museum calls for the audience to contribute their own perspectives on history and makes them visible in the museum immediately. This includes altering the design by adding to a tape-graffiti or enriching the exhibition’s storyline by contributing digital objects (images or videos) via one’s personal digital device. The content added digitally is then displayed on monitors and projections within the museum. These options of public participation guarantee the dynamic development of the semi-permanent exhibition even after it has opened.
Playful installations further challenge the boundary between the virtual and the material and enable visitors to examine their own ideas. For instance, virtual postcards offer infinite options to create new, individual, images of Austria and are subsequently delivered by traditional postal service.
The story line of the main exhibition offers multidimensional, sometimes even conflicted takes on history. The many invitations for interaction highlight the importance of critical reflections and foster discussions – not only about historical events but especially about the ways in which history is represented. Therefore, visitor’s experience is not limited to an authoritative voice (e.g. provided by an audio guide), but is shaped by their own choices and contributions.
Together, the online and material museum engages in debates about history and public space, especially the historically charged Heldenplatz square in Vienna and the many layers of history represented there. Thus, the museum becomes a place of active participation in shaping the perception of key locations of Austrian history and enables the museum audience to make their takes and opinions on those contested places be heard (digitally and analogue).
The museum publishes as much content as possible under CC BY licences and therefore enables everyone to reuse it. The object databases are going to be published online and are planned to be incorporated into the Europeana database.
The museum’s mission states that everyone interested in Austrian history is a stakeholder and thus welcomed and addressed by the museum's services. Visitors are welcomed and hosted by a member of the learning team at our Welcome Desk – the nexus between the historical part of the building, the recreational space and the exhibition area. This offers every visitor not only the possibility to have their questions directly answered but fosters a dialogue about different perspectives on contemporary history and the modes of display between visitors and museum staff.
As a public project, the museum uses different media to reach out to it's diverse audience – by physical and digital exhibitions, by providing learning resources inside and outside the museum, by initiating art projects and by engaging events and activities. Cooperation with various public- and community organisations, as well as social initiatives, highlight the museum’s objective to provide options of multi-dimensional engagement with history.
The House of Austrian History offers a varied and innovative education programme, including guided tours and extensive education workshops for schools (various formats depending on the age of pupils and type of school) and communities. Regular short and overview tours, thematic tours with curators and the programme “family morning” offer insight into the exhibition to a broad audience. In the series “Questions Asked”, community spokespeople and personalities of public interest recount how they experience certain historical circumstances, thereby adding to or even countering the exhibition’s narratives. A central element for family learning is an interactive, illustrated booklet titled „Mach mit!“ (Come along, engage!). Along the topics and story line of the opening exhibition, it takes the visitors through the last 100 years of history, highlighting certain objects and discussing the topic of democracy – its development, but also its absence and the importance of engaging in processes of living together today. The booklet is offered free of charge at the entrance of the exhibition and is taken along not only into the exhibition, but home – and thus serves as a means of learning beyond the museum visit.
It is especially important to us as a museum of the 21st century to first, be aware and critical about processes of social exclusion, and second, to be physically and intellectually accessible and to cater to diverse stakeholders. Therefore, our activities comply with the interests of different communities. The accessibility of our museum is safeguarded by adopting standards such as wheelchair accessibility within all areas of the museum and w3-digital-guidelines for the online platform, but also by developing content for groups with specific needs (e.g. the translation of an acoustic art installation for visitors with hearing disabilities). It is of importance to the museum that our programme allows as many people as possible to interact, regardless of their physical and linguistic capacities. However, due to limited resources we have not yet met all our goals, thus we are still working on improved access for visually impaired visitors. Written information has been specifically designed to appeal to people with different levels of knowledge of history and make the initiated discussion intellectually accessible. The museum creates spaces for the productive interaction of communities, academia, cultural work, museum communication and the arts.
The House of Austrian History is the first and only museum of contemporary history on a federal level in Austria. This comes with a responsibility to encourage interest in the historical contexts of current developments, to play a part in civic discourse, in supporting marginalized voices and in offering different stories to what is widely perceived as “Austrian”. Finding the right tools to do so, especially to open up the space of the museum and reaching out to diverse social groups, is an ongoing process. It requires listening to outside perspectives, being flexible and oftentimes a change of approaches. Being a newly established institution with a relatively small team of young employees comes with difficulties but it uniquely qualifies the House of Austrian History to do so.
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