Reinventing the Wien Museum

Old and New Vienna Showcased in a Rethinking of the City’s Platform for History and Culture

On The Town | Isabella Vatter | November 2006

The simple facade to the Wien Museum guards the key to Vienna‘s past, present and future (Photo: Wien Museum)

Through the lush thicket of trees on Karlsplatz, the corner of a 1950’s-style exterior reveals itself until, a few steps before the entrance, the Wien Museum comes into full view.  Even after the renovation the basic cubist shape has not changed, the well-known red granite floor and dull brass doorframes are familiar.

However as the entire foyer reveals itself, the dramatic changes that have transformed this fine museum are now clear. Shiny plasma TVs presenting the newest exhibition information adorn the snow-white walls. The sleek lines of the open-design shop spill bright book covers, posters and reproduction artifacts into the space. No, you tell yourself.  Not now.

Exactly five months ago the doors of the ‘new and improved’ Wien Museum opened after a long renovation. Founded in 1887 as the ‘Historisches Museum der Stadt Wien,’ it was renamed and reconceived in 2003 under the direction of Wolfgang Kos. The institution, which includes exhibits all over Vienna, underwent a complete makeover. The all-important flagship site, an unprepossessing post-war box designed by Oswald Härdtl, opened in 1959.

The new name, vital and modern, was key to repositioning the museum in the minds of the Viennese public, communicating its new energy and self-confidence. The central competence of the museum is clear: the examination of the city and its people. As Wolgang Kos described it at the opening: "We are not just any Viennese museum, we are THE Vienna Museum."  The name also reflects a new openness: The Wien Museum is an urban, universal museum with a broad spectrum.

Following orange arrows on the floor, a vaulting atrium explodes before your eyes.  This light-flooded winter garden at the heart of the museum is utterly stunning. Seven meter walls lead your gaze up to a beautiful milk-glass roof edged by a light, almost delicate, iron framework.

And yet, after these first few moments, you feel a certain unease: The room is too clean, too sterile. Even with fine dramatic blow-ups of exhibition pieces on the walls, there are too few visual elements to soften the hard-edged corners and purity of the new space.  The buffet at the far end looks cold and lost. You find yourself yearning for some broad creamy café umbrellas and a few sprawling potted palms to humanise the scene. You locate the sleek glass elevator and are soon spirited away into the hidden upper reaches of the museum.

The first floor is a radical change in atmosphere. Warm, wooden floors, grey-blue walls and discreet lighting shape the surrounding of the first exhibition space. In contrast to the excessive purity of the atrium, here is a conglomeration of curious objects. A row of highly polished knights in armor presiding next to glass cabinets filled with exotic ancient weaponry and strange figurines.

A copper engraving by Folbert Van Alten Allen is especially striking merely from its size. Printed in 1683 from six plates, the work gives a bird’s eye view of old Vienna. Each street, each tree has been intricately carved into the last little detail.

The second floor is parallel in its ambience and structure, advancing the calendar to the 1800- to 1900s. Dominating the room is a vast panorama of Vienna from the Nussberg, by Anton Hlavacek. This gigantic oil landscape portrait is accurate to astonishing detail, capturing and reflecting back a deep knowledge, and perhaps even love, for the city of Vienna.

Moving further through the exhibition there seem to be endless cases filled with unusual artifacts such as early Turkish guns, sowing materials and filigree teacups, as well as an incredible number of paintings many of which are technically excellent yet often kitschy in subject matter. But classical portraits, landscape paintings and still lifes were favourite subjects of late Renaissance painting in Austria and aimed to represent and depict life. To the modern eye, these themes may appear outdated and monotonous, yet they were important tools in capturing symbolic and characteristic sceneries of the era.

Visually nearly overwhelmed, two things are still irresistible. The smaller side rooms on the second and third floors are each completely taken up by massive architectural models of the city, one as it was bounded within the old city wall around 1609, and one showing how it had changed by 1900, once the massive recasting of the city was complete. Enclosed by glass barriers, the visitor is able to walk around the entire replica while having a perfect view from above. The reproductions are so realistically sculpted that you can find small streets and squares and even individual buildings as they were at each time period.

Over all, the museum felt strange to this visitor, a hodge-podge of art and object so unlike other museums.  The rooms are overflowing with peculiar pieces arranged in an order that feels at times bizarre. Though clearly structured by timeframe, there are highly realistic, old paintings suddenly next to crazy, modern photographs and posters. One minute an array of pretty teacups can be admired while in the next moment you find yourself in the middle of Grillparzer’s or Loos’ living rooms.

What has been achieved is a singular position. The Wien museum does not reduce itself to being either an art or a history museum. It has actually managed to be both and more.

The programme concentrates on conservation, examination and permanent reinterpretation of the collection’s objects. It is about aesthetic phenomena- socio-political and culture-historical. It is an information warehouse, an open medium which houses city life credentials, memories as well as aesthetic period materials.

The project is thorough; even the renovation process may be observed on the website in highly stylised photos. The transformation is an art project in itself.

However, the principal achievement in this renovation project is the concept behind the museum. It is unmistakable that much thought went into the question of what the Wien Museum should stand for.

Indeed it is not just an art museum, for that purpose Vienna has the MuseumsQuartier, among others. It is also not a history museum, for that also exists in Vienna. The unique selling point of the Wien Museum is its examination and engagement with the city of Vienna. Kos and his team have obviously understood the city, because the museum succeeds in reflecting on the traditionalism as well as the contemporary scene. It is anchored in the grandeur of the past and aims to celebrate this, while at the same time, looking into the future and at the generations to come.

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