Exhibitions provide ethnological museums with an opportunity to display their collections to the general public. The treasures they preserve are dedicated to the better understanding of individual cultures or regions of the world, or offer a comparative approach to the entire spectrum of cultural diversity.
In their examination of cultural differences and that which all people have in common, ethnological museums render an important contribution to the understanding of a world that has become much smaller due to the improved possibilities of mobility and communication, and at the same time increasingly multicultural due to migration. It is our task to contextualise social changes and developments in today’s world by means of our extensive collections.
The Weltmuseum Wien – formerly the Museum of Ethnology – houses comprehensive collections of ethnographic objects, historical photographs, and books on non-European civilisations, making it one of the leading ethnographic museums in the world. Its roots can be traced back to the year 1806, when the “Imperial and Royal Ethnographic Collection” was established as part of the Imperial Natural History Cabinet after the partial acquisition of the “Cook Collection”. The continuously growing collections were transferred to the anthropological-ethnographic department of the Court Museum of Natural History in 1876. The Museum of Ethnology was formally opened in the Corps de Logis, Neue Burg, in 1928.
Its earliest ethnographic artefacts of the Weltmuseum Wien date back to the 16th century. Renaissance chambers of art and curiosities comprised highly popular exotic objects. The collection of Archduke Ferdinand II at Ambras Castle in Tirol contained numerous important ethnographic artefacts, among them pre-Columbian and colonial feather objects, treasures from Mexico, and examples of African-Portuguese ivory carving. In the course of the Napoleonic Wars, the Ambras Collection ended up in Vienna. Aside from the Ambras Collection and the almost 250 objects collected by James Cook (1728–1779) on his travels and acquired in London in 1806, the foundation of the Imperial and Royal Ethnographic Collection was laid with the collections brought back from the Austrian Brazil Expedition (1817–1836), first and foremost the objects collected by the naturalist Johann Natterer, and the collection assembled on the journey around the world of the Austrian frigate “Novara” between 1857 and 1859.
Following the razing of Vienna’s old fortifications and the old city’s subsequent urban development and expansion, the Imperial and Royal Court Museum of Natural History replaced the venerable “court cabinets” in 1876. Its first director, Ferdinand von Hochstetter, divided the holdings into five collections, the fifth being the separate anthropological-ethnographic department, the predecessor of the Museum of Ethnology. The Imperial and Royal Court Museum of Natural History opened its doors in 1889, and Franz Heger was made director of the department. Heger’s brisk collecting activity, the acquisitions made by many explorers and travellers, the voyages undertaken by ships of the Austro-Hungarian Navy, and the generous patronage of members of the imperial court greatly increased the collection’s holdings. Soon, however, the lack of space was untenable, at the latest when the collection amassed by Crown Prince Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Este on his voyage of circumnavigation of 1892/93 had to be incorporated: it comprised 14,000 ethnographic objects and more than 1,100 photographs. From as early as 1912, the “Este Collection” was displayed in the new wing of Hofburg Palace, which had initially been designed as imperial living quarters. In light of the discipline of ethnology’s new self-image and the slow drifting apart of the holdings of the anthropological-ethnographic department, the ethnographic collection was to be separated from the Museum of Natural History and installed in a separate museum in the Corps de Logis of Hofburg Palace, the Neue Burg. In 1928 the “Museum of Ethnology” was formally opened.
After the serious financial constraints of the interbellum period, World War II, and the immediate post-war era, when the Museum first served as a field hospital and then as the provisional home of the orthopaedic hospital, the general economic upswing of the years following the war led to the most innovative period in the history of the Museum of Ethnology. Galleries, depots and offices were expanded, and a chemical laboratory, a photographic studio with darkroom, a carpentry workshop, and even a printing press installed in the Museum. The Museum was finally able to print its own exhibition catalogues, event programmes etc. The Museum of Ethnology presented numerous temporary exhibitions at two permanent outposts – Matzen Castle and the former Carthusian monastery at Gaming – and in collaboration with numerous other museums. Between 1988 and 1994, a museum bus toured through Austria, presenting new thematic and/or regional exhibitions every year.
The 1990s witnessed a certain amount of turmoil, and a comprehensive renovation of the Museum could no longer be put off. The first building phase saw the cellars adapted to depots until 2001. In the course of the semi-privatisation of Austria’s federal museums, the Museum was incorporated into the museum group “Kunsthistorisches Museum mit Museum für Völkerkunde und Österreichisches Theatermuseum” in 2001. Between 2004 and 2007, the few remaining galleries open to the public – which had been renovated in the early 1990s – were closed due to the necessary renovation works. At that time, the Museum was extensively rebuilt and refurbished from the Ground Floor up to the attic: a lift for heavy objects and another one for the disabled were installed, the entire electronic and security system was replaced, an IT network was installed, the library was moved, an event space was added, some of the galleries were refurbished, the marble and stucco lustro elements of the Corps de Logis were restored, the conservation workshops re-equipped and enlarged, a new depot for textiles added, some of the galleries restored, and around 2,000 square metres of office space, research facilities, and seminar rooms created in the attic).
After the completion of the refurbishment, the Museum was reopened with the exhibition “Benin – Kings and Rituals” (9 May 2007 – 3 September 2007). One of the permanent galleries – “Divine Images, South Asia, Southeast Asia, Himalayas” was opened in 2008.
On 1 May 2012, Sabine Haag, General Director of the KHM-Museumsverband, and CFO Paul Frey appointed the Dutchman Steven Engelsman as the Museum’s new director. Under his lead, a comprehensive realignment of the Museum was planned. Following the government’s financial guarantee to fund these ambitious plans, they were presented to the public in April 2013. At the same time, the Museum was renamed “Weltmuseum Wien” and given a new corporate design. After the redesign of the permanent collection and public areas, the Weltmuseum Wien opened in late 2017. On 1 January 2018, Christian Schicklgruber was appointed as new Director of the Museum.