The Weltmuseum revises our approach to ethnology while celebrating our diversity

As the world changes, so do our perspectives; nothing seems as archaic as yesterday’s attitudes. In our increasingly globalized world, this goes doubly for our perception of different cultures: So when the venerable Völkerkundemuseum (Museum of Ethnology) temporarily closed its doors at the Hofburg three years ago, the intention wasn’t merely to remodel but to lay an outdated way of understanding culture, history and tradition to rest.

There certainly was a lot to work with. Containing 200,000 objects, 100,000 historical photographs, and 146,000 printed works, the museum possesses an extensive collection, including the only remaining Aztec feather-work crown, originally acquired from Archduke Ferdinand II of Tyrol’s private collection and controversially attributed by some experts to Emperor Moctezuma II. With limited space to house an ever-expanding collection, however, a new concept was needed to properly showcase their artifacts in state-of-the-art facilities while still opening up the museum to contemporary perspectives. The resulting design, a collaboration between the award-winning Hoskins Architects and Ralph Appelbaum Associates, emphasizes the interior’s common architectural accents yet allows every display to express its distinct character, creating a more contextualized view of culture and history.

Now renamed and reopening on Oct 25 with a spectacular world music show curated by renowned Austrian artist André Heller, the new Weltmuseum Wien (World Museum Vienna) will present itself in an open and inviting form: At the main entrance, visitors will be greeted by a multipurpose cube serving as a projection surface and event space. Once inside, two vestibules will draw you into the Säulenhalle (hall of columns), a hub giving direct access to all special exhibits, while the permanent collection can be found on the mezzanine.

Joining the narrative

Replacing passive viewership with active involvement, every room of their 14 permanent galleries will feature a centerpiece object introducing a theme, while the surrounding interactive media displays expand the narrative, portraying different cultures and traditions within their context. Daisychained together, the refurbished halls explore the cultures of African nations like Benin and Ethiopia, feudal life in Japan’s Edo period, or give historical snapshots of various Amerindian cultures.

Interestingly, the museum sheds a surprising light on the former Habsburg monarchy’s efforts to build their ethnographic collections. With no overseas colonies, the empire relied on ambitious expeditions by artifact-obsessed nobles and adventurous amateur explorers who traveled the world in pursuit of ethnographic specimens to bring back home. In their permanent “Collecting Craze” exhibition, visitors can take a closer look at three Habsburg archdukes’ voyages spanning the globe.

Supporting the permanent collection are unusual seasonal exhibits exploring a wide spectrum of contemporary issues: For starters, “Sharing Stories: Speaking Objects” and “Pop-Up World: Narratives” reflects on different aspects of the relationship between object and narrative, while Dejan Kaludjerović’s “Conversations” looks into the “origins of ideological, philosophical and political thinking” through the eyes of children he interviewed. Rajkamal Kahlon’s “Staying with Trouble” examines, challenges and alters stereotypes created by ethnographic photography and “The Master Narrative” by Lisl Ponger muses on the lasting impact of colonialism and the very nature of ethnological museums.

Wandering around the exhibitions surrounding the Säulenhalle, it quickly becomes clear that it’s not just curious or an updated worldview on display here. By building a framework for the rich heritage of humanity, the Weltmuseum has created a common narrative for us all.

Reopening Oct 25, 1., Heldenplatz, weltmuseumwien.at