The nineteenth and twentieth centuries saw much of the nation-making and museum creation discussed in this paper, Austria underwent a whole spectrum of constitutions: monarchy, republic, autocracy and part of a totalitarian state and then again, since the ten years spanning 1945-1955, a republic. This dramatic history is also reflected in the changing borders of Austria – from a geographically extensive mosaic of the Habsburg Monarchy (as a Vielvölkerstaat; a multinational realm) to today’s Austria that is made up by nine federal states with approximately 8,4 million inhabitants in total. Thus, an important question concerns what the term ‘national’ may refer to in the specific case of Austria.
Turning to developments in the museum sphere, the period of the Austrian Empire (1804- 1867) and the Austro-Hungarian Empire (1867-1918) – especially in the Vormärz - was marked by royal initiatives regarding existing collections. A process of centralizing and ordering collections, that hitherto had been dispersed, began and thus it was only now that these began to be regarded as entities. In the imperial city of Vienna, splendid buildings were constructed to host these collections during the second half of the century, e.g. the “twin museums” Kunsthistorisches Museum (KM, Museum of Art History) and Naturhistorisches Museum (NM, Museum of Natural History), emerging from the imperial collections. However, the two museums were never described as ‘national’, since the Vielvölkerstaat had to represent all peoples. The same can be said about the Austrian Museum für Volkskunde (The Austrian Museum of Folk Life and Art), inaugurated in 1894.
Outside Vienna, a number of regional/provincial museums were founded; the Joanneum in Graz/Styria (1811) being perhaps the most prominent example. The Joanneum serves as a case study, highlighting topics such as the development of a national and regional identity and private initiatives in the museum sphere. The question of the relation between region and nation, what is centre and what is periphery is important in this context. According to Raffler, these museums were Janus-faced, being both cosmopolitan and regional as the museums presented both history of humanity and nationally specific knowledge (Raffler 2007: 344f).
With the disintegration of the Habsburgian monarchy, museums became state-owned. Often characterized as a time of crisis, a new self-image and identity had to be invented. The term ‘Austria’ was however, regarded with scepticism since it hitherto primarily had been associated with the dynasty of the Habsburgs. Rituals and festivities rooted in the empire had to be replaced and attempts were made to promote music as the factor that made the geographically highlyshrunken Austria into a world nation (Mattl 1995). The period also included art restoration claims, posed by former members of the multinational realm.
During NS-rule, megalomaniac projects included new museums, here exemplified with plans for (but never completed) Fuehrer-museums in Linz and Vienna. Austria’s role during this period of fascism has been much disputed, affecting later plans and discussions for museum projects dealing with this period: Austria as a victim vs. Austria as willing partner? Further post-war discussions on identity include the status assigned with the signing of the state treaty in 1955 that has been endlessly celebrated; and the constructing of a tale of new beginnings forming a unifying national symbol and stepping stone for new national myths.
In this paper, the question of the existence of an Austrian national museum, focusing on twentieth century history, is addressed by highlighting recent discussions surrounding the plans for a Haus der Geschichte (House of History). Until today, it is – interestingly enough – the Heeresgeschichtliches Museum (The Museum of Military History) that presents the most complete history of Austria, although ending with the end of WWII. Since the late 1990s, various proposals for a new museum have been made and the project has been intensely debated among politicians and historians. Still today, no consensus exists regarding exactly what to exhibit and why; neither is the question of where (in Vienna) such a museum should be located settled. The debates are interesting since they reveal the still-existing tensions regarding how to tackle and present central topics such as the Ständestaat (authoritarian rule 1934-38), the Austrian civil war, the Anschluß and Austria’s role during the NS-reign. Many historians fear a political instrumentalization and a toosmooth version of the violent past that constitutes one aspect of Austrian twentieth century history. Finally, Marlies Raffler has put forward an interesting thought: could it be that an Austrian national museum is equal to the sum of existing Landesmuseen (i.e. museums located in the federal states of Austria), together making up a kind of ‘disloziertes Nationalmuseum’ (dislocated Nationalmuseum) today?
Linköping: Linköping University Electronic Press, 2011. 21-46 p.
Building National Museums in Europe 1750–2010. Identity Politics, the Uses of the Past and the European Citizen, Bologna 28-30 April 2011. EuNaMus Report No. 1