We talked to four guardians of our collective consciousness in the world of photography, hospitality, urban history and children’s books
“As a successor state of a once global empire, modern Austria has a kind of systemic nostalgia built into its structure.”
Nostalgia is an elusive concept for Matti Bunzl: An Austrian-American historian who has lived half his life in Vienna and half in the U.S., he feels at home in two cultures that could hardly be more different, the one impulsive, the other cautious. It’s creative destruction vs. creative continuity. Few Austrians see “disruption” as positive.
This gives him a special perspective on Austria’s relationship with the past.
“At the turn of the century, Vienna was one of the five largest cities in the world. So when the monarchy fell apart, what was once a huge, mighty power completely evaporated,” he tells me, at the breakneck pace of a scholar with more ideas than time. So the Viennese began a long process of reimagining who they were.
“As an institution, we get to be the arbiter of Vienna’s history and culture. The city kind of says, ‘you guys decide what Vienna’s history is,’ and that’s the charge,” he went on, with an air of not-so-restrained glee.
As a child in Vienna, Matti Bunzl loved to visit the Wien Museum with his father, never dreaming he would one day be its director. He feels he couldn’t have chosen a better time to return.
“In my childhood, Vienna was shrinking. At its lowest, the population was about 1.3 million,” far less than its peak of two million in 1910. “It was like a death of a city.” So he’s amazed at how, especially since the fall of communism, Vienna has grown to become a global city again, with a “pluralized” population. This is his public. “In some ways, we’re the reverse of the Albertina or Belvedere, whose audience is about 90 percent tourists. Our visitors are 75 percent locals, so we’re really the museum for the Viennese.” But as both a dual citizen and a native Wiener with a Jewish background, Bunzl made it abundantly clear what he meant by “locals.”
“Anyone and everyone who makes their life here, who lives here, is a local,” he clarified. And it looks like this “local” is not going anywhere anytime soon.