The Weltmuseum Wien

The Weltmuseum Wien has a long history. The museum's oldest ethnographic collections were located in Austria as early as the 16th century. With beginnings in Ambras Castle in Tyrol, the collection of 200,000 objects today is at home in the Neue Burg in the heart of Vienna.

16th to 18th Century

16th to 18th Century – A Habsburg Private Collection

Nobility, clergy and bourgeoisie cultivated interest in exotic and curious objects from the Renaissance. The artefacts in their collections were typically of non-European origin and were housed along with natural objects taken from as yet little-known regions of the world. For instance, a Mexican feather shield was designated as a Chinese parasol, a Caribbean belt, initially described as East Indian, was later thought to be of African origin. Carved ivories from Africa were said to be “Indian” (that is, Asian), and a sketchbook from the Great Lakes region was meant to have originated in Aotearoa (New Zealand).

Perhaps, the most famous collection was the Art, Armoury and Curiosity Cabinet of Archduke Ferdinand II (1529–1595) housed in Schloss Ambras, Innsbruck. Such “rarities” would frequently change hands in an international network, either as gifts or through sales. While too many artefacts from the early colonial period from these private collections have been lost, many of those that survived have since passed into museums, among them the present-day Weltmuseum Wien.

19th Century

19th Century – Public Habsburg Private Collection

In the early 19th century, Emperor Franz I of Austria (1768–1835) established an Ethnographic Collection as part of the Imperial Cabinets of Natural History. Objects from James Cook’s Pacific and North American Collection, purchased at a London auction in 1806 on behalf of the Emperor, were its first new acquisitions. On the occasion of the marriage of his daughter Archduchess Leopoldine (1797–1826) to the Portuguese crown prince, who lived in Brazil and later became Brazilian emperor, Emperor Franz I sent a scientific expedition to Brazil in 1817. The expedition collected extensive specimens for Vienna’s natural history and ethnological collections. The work of the expedition, however, was not only carried out by its European members. They depended on the labor, expertise, and assistance of local people, intermediaries, assistants, and enslaved persons. Artefacts from the expedition reached Vienna by way of a number of large shipments. Due to the resulting lack of space in the Vienna Hofburg, a Brazilian Museum was founded by the emperor in 1821 in Johannesgasse in Vienna, but it was closed again as early as 1836. Again, together with natural history artefacts, the ethnographic collection was presented in one of the 12 rooms of this museum. From 1838 to 1840, the imperial, ethnological heritage found a home for a short time in the k. k. ethnographic museum - commonly referred to as the "Kaiserhaus" - in Ungargasse in Vienna. Continuing together with naturalia, 22 showcases of ethnographica were already set up here.

Centuries after the first circumnavigations of the Western European states, the Austrian frigate Novara followed their example in the years 1857 to 1859. In addition to its diplomatic and economic objectives, the Novara also focused on scientific research. Ethnographic collections were gathered at the holding stations. Various ships of the Austro-Hungarian Navy followed this example in later decades and collected for the museum in the wake of colonialism.


1889 – Institutionalisation in the Natural History Museum Vienna

Inspired by Paris, London and Berlin, an anthropological society was also founded in Vienna in 1870; the decision was also taken to establish a museum of anthropology and prehistory complete with library. Much like the imperial ethnographic collections that preceded it, this museum also faced problems of storage space. The new building of the Imperial and Royal Court Museum of Natural History was the solution for the ethnological collections of the imperial house and this society. In this museum, opened in 1889, which emancipated itself from the Roman Catholic Church's interpretation of the world with its emphasis on Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, an anthropological-ethnographic department was established in whose development the Anthropological Society participated. The department covered not only ethnology and physical anthropology, but also European prehistory. The departments work was animated by misguided notions of evolutionary hierarchies reflected in ideas of “race”. These hierarchies saw so-called non-European “primitive peoples” and prehistoric European peoples as precursors of purported higher stages of human development. This definition of the world celebrated the idea of supremacy of Europe, colonialism, and the triumph of modern science. Some of these classification schemes, e.g., the notion of different human "races" and the distinction between folk art (simple and static), art and high culture (complex and dynamic), are still common today.

Due to competition from other museums and collectors, the department tried to expand the collections as quickly as possible in order to anticipate the disappearance of certain cultures expected at the time and to fill collection gaps; a practice that was also common in other countries at the time. In this way, the material heritage of mankind was to be safeguarded in order to enable a comprehensive study of its cultural history. But, as in earlier eras, “exotic” artefacts remained a focus of interest.

Adequate funding for acquisitions was a challenge. Thus, the department adopted different strategies: Individual patrons were courted, and the museum sought to exchange objects with other museums and with private collectors. Members of the diplomatic corps and colonial officials contributed significantly to the expansion of the museum’s collection. Although Austria-Hungary was not a colonial power in the mould of Britain, France and Germany, the museum was nevertheless a beneficiary of colonialism. The extensive collection from the Kingdom of Benin, which was subjugated by British forces and later bequeathed to the museum by a patron is a case in point.


1928 – Museum of Ethnology

The Corps de Logis of the Vienna Hofburg was originally intended to house representative rooms of the imperial family. But they had been opened as early as 1912 as a museum edifice to house the collection that Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria (1863–1914) collected during his world travels.

After World War I, due to lack of space in its main building, the Natural History Museum also moved the ethnographic department to the Corps de Logis which was merged with the Archduke's collection. In 1928, the two collections were reopened to the public and renamed the Museum of Ethnology. The press reported that the Museum of Ethnology together with the adjacent Art History Museum, and the Natural History Museum formed a “trinity” unparalleled anywhere else in the world. This concentration of cultural institutions bolstered the standing of the former Imperial House and its collecting activities.


1938–1945 – National Socialist Alignment

Before Austria was annexed to Germany in 1938, a cohort of the museum’s staff was closely linked to the (banned) National Socialists. During the National Socialist regime, colonial policy became a focus of new interest as witnessed in the German Colonial Exhibition of 1940 in the Neue Burg organized under the auspices of the Reichskolonialbund (Reich Colonial League). The museum’s exhibition programme, hewed to and promoted the National Socialist ideology. The museum planned a series of displays, such as “Das Hakenkreuz in Ostasien” (The Swastika in East Asia) and a special exhibition on comparative culture; an exhibition devoted to “Großostasien” (Greater East Asia) in collaboration with the Japanese diplomatic missions in Berlin and Vienna was not realised due to the war.

During the war, the museum's most important holdings were removed from the exhibition rooms and moved to safety in cellar depots and salvage locations in Vienna and the countryside.

As with other state institutions, in the years between 1938 and 1945 the museum acquired “Aryanised” collections. These private collections, mostly Jewish, were either transferred to the museum by the authorities or inventoried in disguise as (favorable) acquisitions or donations. The Mission House of St. Gabriel, was dissolved during the Nazi “Klostersturm” (“monastic storm”); its ethnographic collections were assigned to the Museum of Ethnology. With the termination of war, the order’s administration lodged a claim for the restitution of its property, which was promptly granted.

After the founding of the Commission on Provenance Research towards the end of the 20th century, the Ethnological Museum spurred a review of collections acquired from 1933 onwards to determine whether they had been improperly acquired. Several restitutions were made. Previously, the incorporated holdings from the old Jewish Museum in Vienna and from various synagogues had already been restituted to the Jewish Community Vienna.


1945 – New Directions

Despite the Second World War the museum found itself in what, for Central European museums, amounted to the exceptional circumstance in that its collections had been preserved in their entirety. As the Wiener Zeitung reported, in 1946 the museum launched the national exhibition entitled Österreicher als Sammler und Forscher in der Welt (Austrians as World Collectors and Researchers), which envisioned future comparative cultural exhibitions for broadening “Austrian’s understanding of the peculiarities of foreign peoples”. A Friends Association – currently the Weltmuseum Wien Friends – was founded in the same year, together with the publication of a scientific ethnological journal, now known as Archiv Weltmuseum Wien.

In the following decades, the collection was expanded through targeted collection trips by curators of the museum, especially with regard to everyday culture. A major boost for the museum came from the establishment and expansion of restoration workshops. This was also accompanied by the professionalization of the conservation department. From the 1960s until the 1980s, there were also annual exhibitions in the outposts of Matzen Castle, Gaming Charterhouse and Scharnstein Castle.


2013 – The Museum of Ethnology becomes the Weltmuseum Wien

After the ethnological collections of the Natural History Cabinets were housed in the Imperial and Royal Court Museum from 1876, a period of independence as the Museum of Ethnology followed after the Second World War. In 2001, the museum was placed under the administrative responsibility of the Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna and together with the Theatermuseum in a scientific institution. After the previously used names such as k. k. ethnographic collection, k. k. ethnographic museum, k. k. anthropological-ethnographic department, k. k. ethnographic collection, ethnographic department and Museum of Ethnology, the museum experienced in 2013 the next name change to: Weltmuseum Wien.

From the first exhibitions as the Museum of Ethnology in 1928 until today, more than 700 exhibitions and presentations have been organized in the museum. In 2017, the museum's permanent exhibition was refurbished.



The museum now seeks to critically assess its past, especially its entanglements with colonialism, National Socialism, and with the history of the discipline of Ethnology. It is committed to re-examining the history of the collections it houses from colonial contexts in cooperation with persons and institutions from the societies from which the collections came. The museum’s staff has also taken an active role in developing an Austrian policy concerning return of cultural heritage objects. Past cases include the return of human remains to Aotearoa (New Zealand) in the years 1985 and 2015.

In its concern with issues of diversity in the formation of human culture, the museum understands itself as a platform of exchange: Openness and self-reflection today in the future.

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