Collections/Connections: World Museum Vienna (Weltmuseum Wien)

The World Museum Vienna, the former “Völkerkundemuseum” (Ethnological Museum), is a great place to challenge oneself into deeper thinking about the learning involved – or not involved – in travel.

The fascination of travel is supposed to be in seeing new places not seen before. Learning new things. Experiencing unknown sights and sounds. Discovering foreign countries and cultures.

But does it do that?

“The Other” at the World Museum

Newly reorganized, the museum no longer follows the historical interest in the exotic and “natural.”

When the Habsburgs started collecting curiosities and exotic paraphernalia from around the world, laying the foundations for the Ethnographic Museum of yesteryear, the “other” was far away.

In the case of “high civilizations,” their objects were curiosities. But at least the people were considered strange equals.

It’s not without reason that one finds Egyptian mummies and art in the Art History Museum. (Same as Greek and Roman sculpture, “of course.”)

In the case of the “less civilized” – and that was, at various times, pretty much everyone living outside of states or just far-enough away – the notion was often that those were peoples closer to a natural state. For better and worse…

The Not-So-Far-Away

With the modern globalized, migratory, interconnected world, even the ethnological museum found itself representative more of an old view of the world than of the world. Thus, the reorganization that took place until 2017.

Since its reopening in late 2017, the World Museum presents a different approach.

Some regional organization, which just makes too much sense for talking about the world and its diversity, is still followed.

Much more focus lies on the history of different engagements with the world, especially by Austrians and with Austria, though.

And many a new kind of presentation puts the exotic and traditional into the modern context, presenting it simply as how people are living now.

Views of East Asia

My favorite examples of these different kinds of presentation are, unsurprisingly, the ones where there is an Asia focus:

Two rather small parts (taking up their own small rooms) focus on China and Japan, respectively.

China, Lauded and Looted

Weltmuseum Wien China Throne Screen

The centerpiece of the China collection is a throne screen stolen from the Nanhaizi hunting palace when the Eight-Nation Alliance put down the Boxer Rebellion.

It is easy to not know anything about this Chinese rebellion against foreign forces in the country. It is easier still  to overlook that the Austro-Hungarian monarchy was one of those eight nations which fought there… and looted.

(I only learned more and more about it when I was researching the Buddhist temples of Beijing; many of them were at least partly destroyed by the Eight-Nation Alliance forces…)

Fighting is not the only relationship between Europe and China, of course.

Weltmuseum Wien China Officials' Clothing

Enlightenment philosophers often upheld China as an exemplar of a country ruled by law, with high regard for philosophers and strong, clear traditions.

Example objects representing the bureaucracy and European thinkers’ engagement with Chinese philosophy point that out in the World Museum.

One room away, there is Japan in the 19th century.

Japan, Opening Up

Weltmuseum Wien Japan Model Fort

Just as interactions with China had grown stronger and become deeply colonial, Japan went into the Meiji Reform and the opening it brought, on its own terms.

One of the early places that Japan presented itself to the world was at the Vienna World Fair of 1873; various objects which were shown there are now right here at the World Museum.

As China fell from favor, Japan rose and an outright japanomania struck many an artist in Europe. (At the time of my writing, the Bank Austria Kunstforum is just exploring these relations in a great exhibition.)

Japan rose to the place of somewhat Western (industrialized, thoroughly modernized, highly influenced by European-American institutions) and thoroughly different, exotic, country and culture that it still holds.

Weltmuseum Wien Japan Kimono

Fittingly, last time I visited the World Museum, a few people were looking at the Japan objects. The young girl among them, as it turned out, was about to embark on a school exchange to Japan…

It is easy nowadays to get there, to travel around – and yet often enough, we don’t learn and know too much.

Even when it comes to world cultural-heritage temples in a Kyoto struggling with overtourism, only the Instagram stars of them are full. Many temples remain comparatively empty. Turn down another road, cross another, there is hardly a tourist to be seen.

Souvenirs of World Travel

Between the objects here and the China and Japan (and other) paraphernalia one room over again, one really gets to thinking about travel and knowledge of “the other”.

That third room I’m talking of holds objects that Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Este collected on his journey around the world in 1892-93.

How different it must have been when he went on that journey.

At that time, knowledge of places like China and Japan came from a few ambassadors, some travel stories, and with a few imported objects of arts and craft. Otherwise, the chance for any interaction was just about nil.

Of course, he had to go overland and mainly by sea. No fast flights back then…

And how telling it is that he brought back so many a, rather random, trinket and art object and bric-a-brac.

And more…

These three rooms are my favorites, of course, because of my focus on East Asia. But, there is a lot more to find out.

How people in the Himalayas now live.

Where Native American traditions (and lives) and the modern USA intersect.

How Austria became an important place for Oceania studies, holding quite a part of Captain James Cook’s collection from the South Seas.

How and where early Austrian orientalists went into the Middle East…

Just a Museum, But Microexploration

It is all just another museum, and not even the most highly-regarded one in Vienna by far.

And it is so telling for our interaction with the wider world, historically as well as in our current times of Instagram travel influencers and Youtube travel vloggers – if only we think about it.

I think that we need to balance going out and exploring, and turning to learning and thinking, better. That is what I try to promote as microexploration – and it is what makes it well-worth to engage with the World Museum Vienna and the collections it holds.

Some issues will, admittedly, leave you cold.

Others, though, will hopefully entice you into greater engagement, a bit more learning, and some reflection: What exactly does your own traveling (or not-traveling) contribute to the story of intercultural interaction?

More info available, of course, at the World Museum website


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  1. Allan Bradl

    Hello there,
    I came here looking for more details on Qing dynasty throne screen from Hoffburg, unfortunately , you don’t say much about the scenes depicted on the screen. I also noticed that you lament about the loss of this artifact and blame Habsburgs. I wonder, what were the chances of this artifact surviving the cultural revolution? If you don’t ask yourself that question, what is the value of you lamenting loss of something that you would have never seen otherwise? Yes, there were times when furniture from imperial palaces was burnt in stoves and fireplaces to keep 红卫兵 warm. That’s would a history lesson for today.

    • Hmmm, I seem to remember reading something somewhere about the scenes depicted. Memory jogged, it might be that they are playing a video in that room which talks about the scenes a little…

      I’d say, I’m more quietly amused that there were Habsburg marines among the Eight Nations, and making off with such a heavy piece.

      Your comment is interesting. It’s a thought I encountered before, which is often struck down as just another bit of colonialist “we’re better than those barbarians”. Which is silly since it all come at different times, and as there’s some truth to things having been destroyed. At the same time, there’s quite a bit that survived the Cultural Revolution in China, and quite a bit that was destroyed by the Eight Nations’ Armies…

      Anyways, I’m happy a post like this finally gets a comment. Let me know if I can help with more details. Actually, I’d be curious to know why you’re researching that throne screen!

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