Collection Highlights of the Weltmuseum Wien

North and Central America

Feather Headdress

The most prominent piece is the celebrated feather headdress featuring hundreds of long quetzal feathers and over a thousand gold plaques. This headdress is the only one of its kind still preserved, and has become something of an iconic artefact of the Weltmuseum Wien. In the course of a joint Austrian-Mexican research project lasting from 2010 to 2012, the headdress was examined, carefully cleaned, and restored.

Both the Armoury and the Chamber of Art and Curiosities were assembled by Archduke Ferdinand II, Count of Tyrol, and were held in high esteem throughout Europe. In 1596, one year after Ferdinand’s death, an inventory of his collections was compiled. Listed in the inventory and now found at the Museum, the American Indian feather objects from what is now Mexico are of particular importance to the Weltmuseum Wien.

The piece has been referred to as “Montezuma’s Crown” for a long time – a title that turned out to be a misnomer. On the contrary, it rather served as the headdress of a priest. Although it remains unclear how the piece was originally acquired, there have always been demands to have it returned to Mexico. After years of research as part of a bilateral cooperation project, even conservators from Mexico had to conclude that the “Penacho” could not be transported without severe damage of the fragile feathers. Nevertheless, there are still individual voices that feel obliged to demand its return to Mexico.

The North and Central America Collection is composed of almost 18,000 objects, half of which are archaeological artefacts. Aside from Mexico, it focuses on the vast area of the Great Lakes as well as the Pacific Northwest Coast of North America, where Captain James Cook collected numerous important artefacts.

South America

Feather Cloak

This rare Munduruku feather cloak is part of the collection assembled by Johann Natterer, a member of the Austrian expedition to Brazil, who explored the country between 1817 and 1835. His ethnographic collection is the most extensive and important of his time. It still forms the core of South American objects in ethnographic collections from Amazonia. Moreover, the collection also includes the categories of archaeological cultures and folk art with a regional focus on the Andes region.

Oceania and Australia

Feather Temple (hale waiea)

This model of a Hawaiian ceremonial house in the shape of a feather temple is the only one of its kind in the world. It was acquired by the British seafarer Captain James Cook (1728-1779) during his third voyage of circumnavigation. The house model is made in wickerwork technique from the split aerial roots of a climbing plant and embellished with red and yellow feathers. The door is decorated with seven tortoise shell plaques. In Hawaiian temples, priests consulted oracles about the plans and outcomes of proposed political and military undertakings, and adjusted their approach to the will of the gods. 

This rare artefact ended up in Austria in 1806, when objects collected by James Cook were auctioned off as part of the private museum of Sir Ashton Lever. Emperor Franz I of Austria sent Baron Leopold von Fichtel to London to acquire these objects and incorporate them into the imperial collections.

The 30,000 objects of the Oceania and Australia Collection document the European encounters with the inhabitants of the South Seas between the 18th and 21st century. The oldest collection was assembled in the course of James Cook’s three voyages of circumnavigation. Today the artefacts can be traced back to Polynesia, Melanesia, Micronesia, and Australia. As museum objects, they serve as evidence of Pacific creativity, regional traditions, and cultural specifications, but also reflect such issues as appropriation and heteronomy both in the past and today.

North Africa, Middle East, Central Asia and Siberia

Mosque Lamps

The inscription tells us that these two hanging lamps once decorated the madrassa that was built by the Mamluk Sultan al-Nasir b. Mohammad in Cairo between 1356 and 1363. Before they were presented as gifts to the anthropological-ethnographic department of the Imperial and Royal Court Museum of Natural History in 1883, the lamps decorated one of the state rooms at Miramare Castle near Trieste. Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian (1832-1867), later Emperor of Mexico, had the castle built for himself between 1854 and 1856. Maximilian probably acquired these lamps in Cairo during one of his journeys across the Mediterranean Sea.

“From the marble objects decorating the sanctuary (of the mosque of Sultan Hassan in Cairo) (...) the saved 34 hanging lamps made of enamelled glass (...) (form) the most valuable part of the entire collection. Made of impure greenish glass, each with six eyelets for fine metal chains so they can be suspended from the ceiling or the pinnacle of the arcades, they served more as embellishments than as sources of light. They are elaborately decorated in coloured enamel with elegant vines and Koranic inscriptions as well as medallions that feature a dedication, usually ‘Honour to our master, the victorious Sultan’, or the Emir’s coat of arms,” Franz Pascha (Julius), Cairo, 1903.

The Weltmuseum Wien’s North Africa, Middle East, Central Asia and Siberia Collection comprises ca. 25,000 objects, making it one of the world’s most important collections on the everyday life and material culture of the respective region.

Sub-Saharan Africa

Two Court Dwarfs

The two worldwide unparalleled figures are among the earliest artworks from the Benin Kingdom. Thanks to their true-to-life naturalism, they are considered exquisite examples of the early style of court art. They were probably once placed on a royal ancestral altar. As court dwarfs are not part of the standard inventory of such shrines, we may assume that these examples depict two historic individuals who had played an important role during the reign of a 15th century ruler. Dwarfs have been recorded at the royal court in Benin ever since this time. Their local name translates as “trumpet”, a reference to their seminal role as the voice of the king. Their attribute, a fan, is still used by a court dwarf to initiate palace ceremonies with a formal salutation of the king.

The celebrated Benin Collection is part of the Sub-Saharan Africa Collection which includes nearly 38,000 objects. The collection reflects the cultural diversity of Africa from the Sahel to the continent’s southern tip and from Senegal in the west to Ethiopia and Madagascar in the east.

Insular Southeast Asia

Wayang klitik Figure

This figure from the Wayang puppet theatre was first mentioned in the inventory of the Chamber of Art of Emperor Rudolf II as assembled between 1607 and 1611. It is one of the oldest and still preserved examples of its kind. Wayang klitik is a Javanese form of theatre using flat wooden dolls that is hardly performed anymore. Performances were not only meant to entertain, but also to educate and teach about both morality and ethics.

Made of lightweight wood, the figure represents Yudhishthira, the eldest of the five Pandava brothers from the epic “Mahabharata”. He was known for his honesty, love of peace, and other outstanding virtues. Yudhishthira is the only one of the brothers said to have attained Nirvana. Following the introduction of Hinduism and Buddhism in the 7th century, the Indian epic Mahabharata also spread throughout Java where it remains popular to this day.

This artefact belongs to the Insular Southeast Asia Collection that comprises ca. 20,000 objects. The region includes the Nicobar and the Andaman Islands as well as today’s states of Brunei, Singapore, Indonesia, Timor Leste, and the Philippines.

East Asia: China, Korea, Japan

Buddha Shakyamuni

This carefully worked metal statue depicts Shakyamuni on the lotus throne and features a dedicatory inscription in Tibetan, Chinese, and Manchurian. This gesture is known as “touching of the earth”, which Shakyamuni used to fend off demonic temptations shortly before his enlightenment. Statues of the religious founder Siddhartha Gautama, Prince of Shakya (ca. 560-480 BC), are popular throughout East Asia.

Until the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, this Buddha statue was part of the inventory at the imperial palace located on the Nanhaizi hunting grounds south of Beijing. Its elaborate robe depicts several five-clawed dragons, which is a symbol of the emperor.

The Weltmuseum Wien’s East Asia Collection includes objects from China, Korea, and Japan. The most extensive part of the collection comprises artefacts from the court and everyday culture of the late Japanese Edo period and early Meiji period in the 19th century. Aside from prized Chinese court objects of the 18th and 19th century, the collection also documents the daily life of this period. Among the more recent focus areas of the collection are popular culture objects from Mao’s time.

South Asia, Southeast Asia, Himalaya

Dong Son Drum

Found in the Red River Delta of northern Vietnam, this drum is one of the finest examples of its kind in the world. The drums were created by the Dong Son around the beginning of the Common Era. Their decorations – ships of the dead, buildings, animals, and people – tell of the origins of Vietnamese culture. Only kings and priests were allowed to beat these instruments. The sound of the drum was believed to call the dragon as the sole source of vitally important rain for their rice fields. The exclusive control over these instruments legitimised the power of the Dong Son kings. In today’s political propaganda, stylised depictions of the metal surface are used to remind the Vietnamese people of their origins and cultural identity.

This object is known all over the world, making it a seminal artefact in the Southeast Asia Collection of the Weltmuseum Wien, which houses a total of 25 Dong Son drums. After studying the collection, Franz Heger published a still valid typology of these instruments in 1903. The style of these drums evolved over the centuries and was also adopted by ethnic minorities.

The South Asia, Southeast Asia and Himalayas Collection features ca. 30,000 objects that offer a comprehensive survey of human activity ranging from simple everyday tasks to ritual practices.

Museum library

Dala'il al-Khayrat

The “Dala'il al-Khayrat” was compiled by the Moroccan mystic al-Jazuli and became the most widely spread collection of prayers for the prophet Muhammad in the Islamic world. The open double page depicts the most sacred cities of Islam.   

On the right: Mecca. The mosque of the prophet with the Kaaba. The hajj or pilgrimage to the centre of the Islamic world must be carried out at least once in the lifetime of all adult Muslims who are physically and financially capable of undertaking the journey. On the left: the burial place of the prophet in the city of Medina, about 300 km north of Mecca. Most Muslims making the pilgrimage to Mecca do not miss the opportunity to pray in Medina as well. Not only Muhammad but also the first three caliphs – Abu Bakr, Umar and Uthman – are buried at this holy site.

Photo collection

Waters Carriers in Cairo

This image depicts three water carriers in Cairo. At the time, water was transported and distributed in animal skins. The large, coarse ceramic vessels stood in the courtyards of houses. The water slowly diffused through the pitchers, where it evaporated and kept the water cool. The company Bonfils was founded under the name of “Maison Bonfils” in Beirut in 1867. It was famous for its studio photographs, pictures of archaeological sites, and everyday scenes, like the one on display. Between 1867 and 1916, the Bonfils family produced tens of thousands of pictures from all over the Middle East.

The exceptional quality of their images – both from a technical and artistic point of view – and their skilful colouring by hand made these pictures highly coveted souvenirs for tourists and travellers. When the Uhlan cavalry captain Josef von Lommer visited the Middle East in late 1899/early 1900 during his voyage of circumnavigation, he obviously could not resist and acquired a total of 80 Bonfils images. After von Lommer’s death in 1905, his collection of 1,043 photographs ended up in the Museum.

The Weltmuseum Wien boasts an additional 136 photographs produced by Bonfils. The Photographic Collection currently comprises more than 140,000 photographs, making it Austria’s largest ethnographic picture archive. Aside from pictures from all over the world made from 1860 until today, the collection is specialised on documentary photographs taken during research or educational journeys, images of objects in the collection, and collections of works by different photographers.

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