The past is only foreign if you deny its powerful impact on the present

Thanks to fresh research by curators Birgit Johler und Magdalena Puchberger, the exhibition Heimat:Machen (Creating:Homeland) at the Volkskundemuseum (The Austrian Museum of Folk Life and Folk Art) reveals not only how a powerful national identity was built on simplistic rural objects and imagery, but how the museum itself played a significant, not always constructive role in shaping Austria’s sense of self.

Heimat:Machen is a review, commemorating the Volkskundemuseum’s 100th anniversary on its premises at Palais Schönborn in the 8th district. However, the museum’s defining years were during the interwar period. “In the 1930s, as in many European countries, politics concentrated on the ‘own,’ or the ‘national,’” explains Puchberger. “Austrian folklore became part of urgent post-WWI nation building.”

The objects in Heimat:Machen are relatively innocuous: a Tiroler Krippe (Tyrolean nativity scene), a woman’s headdress, an outdated flag, embroidery patterns or wooden sleds. To the more globally minded, bred in postindustrial, postcolonial environments, it can seem quaint and dated, but, as always, context is key. You can also see boxes full of badges in red-white-red, some of them stamped over with swastikas, used to certify Trachten (folk costume) as authentic.

“‘Homeland’ can also mean the ideologization of one’s ‘own’ as good, right, and true to the exclusion of ‘others,’ as in the Nazi era,” says Johler. “Folklore objects were deliberately identified and popularized with an Austrian or German ideology.”

We are what we collect – it’s easy to forget today’s new or foreign object is tomorrow’s treasured piece of folklore. But decorating a modern interior with an antique rake or dressing up for a Trachten and Dirndl wedding gain greater symbolism when wrapped in a mythical cultural narrative.

Origin Stories

When the Volkskundemuseum moved to its current location in 1917, the timing was auspicious – what could be better for the ego of a crushed empire than reinventing itself? Positioning the soul of the shrunken capital within the myth of uniquely Austrian ways was an easy sell in a city desensitized by populist anti-immigrant rhetoric as espoused by politicians like Karl Lueger – influential to this day.

Interestingly, this constructed self-image spread from the capital to the countryside, with tourist offices promoting nature, mountains, and folksy culture as typically Austrian, notes Johler. “National costume was only worn in Vienna. Folk culture was co-developed here. The homogenization and standardization process worked from the city to the federal states.”

The city itself, still a lively and diverse melting pot back then, was receptive to such deliberate politicization, says Puchberger. “The Volkskunde academics as well as committed laypeople designed different formats of folk culture: the youth culture ‘Volkstanz im Freien’ (open air folk dancing), huge costume parades on the Ringstrasse or the use of new media such as radio for folk song broadcasts, which could be sung at home.”

Heimat:Machen is topical: Current political movements are once again turning away from globalism to define culture as something closed, monolithic and immutable, rather than an open, fluid, multi-spiced process. Street names, battle flags and statues provoke deadly attacks even in supposedly civilised modern democracies. The past does not remain quietly in dusty boxes. Nor should it. It’s fun to search the Naschmarkt flea market for old treasure, visit Freud’s practice frozen in time, or reinterpret peasant blouses, retro vinyl and steampunk Victoriana. It’s inspiring to take the past out of one context into another, and sickeningly destructive when the context is misused. And as long as a pair of Lederhosen or a children’s toy can provoke us to draw deadly lines between Us and Them, it’s worth keeping close watch on how we allow our things to define us.

Through Mar 3, Volkskundemuseum. 8., Laudongasse 15-19.