In Heimat:Machen, the Volkskundemuseum Confronts its own Role in Shaping National Identity

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objects in Heimat:Machen are relatively innocuous: a Tiroler Krippe (Tyrolean nativity scene), a woman’s headdress, an outdated flag, embroidery patterns or wooden sleds.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.

Andrew Standen-Raz
Following studies in Anthropology at UCL, Film at NYU Tisch School of the Arts, and Law at Loyola, Andrew worked for Miramax Films, 20th Century Fox Studios, and won two awards as a public relations counsel at Ruder Finn. After seeing the US political system from the inside while working for the VOA at a Democratic & a Republican political convention, Andrew returned to Europe to make documentary films, including "Vinyl: Tales from the Vienna Underground", which premiered at Karlovy Vary. He is currently curating for a film festival, developing new film projects, and developing an organic food app

Help us help you

“Strong media and independent journalism are built on the shoulders of subscribers. Your support means the world to us.

Benjamin Wolf
COO & Managing Editor

The coronavirus outbreak affects and challenges your life in big and small ways. Metropole is here for you and we are proud to be your news source during this crisis.

But just as the coronavirus has increased the need for independent journalism, it has also undercut a major revenue source of media companies, ours included – advertising.

We need your support to keep it up – donate or subscribe and #helpushelpyou!

Support Metropole!


RECENT Articles

Coronavirus in Austria & Vienna | Study Shows Antibodies Still Strong 4 Mon...

COVID-19 is shaping our daily lives. Here’s all you need to know about current measures, including where to get help, information and tips – updated regularly.

“Austria can manage this. Together.”

On Austria’s National Day, October 26, 2020, Federal President Alexander Van der Bellen addressed Austrians and “all people living in our country” with a calm plea for reasons, fortitude and unity.

Planting Seeds of Home

Project Home re-thinks the traditional definition of home as a concept shaped by our experiences, rather than a physical place.

The Ischgl Report – Misjudgment, Misconduct and Misinformation

An independent review of the outbreak response to one of Europe’s first COVID-19 clusters blames federal and state officials for their slow reactions and poor communication.

New COVID-19 Measures – What Will Change

The federal government has once again tightened rules for restaurants and events. Here’s what it means for Vienna.

Enforcement of Mask Rules by U-Bahn Security Triggers Accusations of Racism

A routine intervention by Wiener Linien staff escalated into alleged use of excessive force; feelings run high while body-cam evidence may prove critical.


Join over 5,000 Metropolitans, who already get monthly news updates and event invitations.