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  • Yasmine Mendes Raouf

Inclusive Museums, Exclusive Politics: New ‘Vienna, My History’ Exhibition Takes on Immigration Debate

Yasmine Mendes Raouf is a graduate student pursuing an International Relations/Global Studies dual Master's degree at Central European University and Bard College.

 

Image by Krisha Cabrera


‘We called for workers, and we got people instead.’

Max Frisch, 1965



Vienna is often seen as a city resistant to change, with its cultural focus placed firmly on the past. A walk along the museum-laden Ringstrasse offers opportunities to discover the Waltz, classical music, and other relics of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Most of the city’s museums tell the history of this empire. Only one tells history from the city’s perspective, and that is the Wien Museum.


On a recent visit to the opening of the museum’s new permanent exhibition, I wondered if the occasion marked a bold attempt on the part of the city to engage with a more modern vision of Viennese culture. Entitled Vienna, My History, the exhibition has been marketed as an innovative re-imagining of the museum’s role as a cultural institution and the city's wider social and political history. Featuring images that portray diverse contemporary residents of Vienna blended into the works of Klimt and Schiele, among others, the public poster campaign accompanying the re-opening suggests a modern, inclusive exhibition. Within Vienna, today a rapidly changing cultural milieu characterized by immigration, this action takes place in a tender political context. Will the Wien Museum include immigrants in its vision of the city’s cultural heritage?


In Austria, far-right political parties set the tone on immigration, advancing a national discursive narrative that likens 'immigrant' to 'threat.' The Freedom Party of Austria (FPO) and the Austrian People's Party (OVP) draw on exclusionary discourses that trade in strong emotion, provoking Austrians to fear newcomers. It is well established that the notion of a threatening ‘Other’ is the quintessential bogeyman of many if not most, nationalist discourses. In the Austrian context, where the political parties that peddle these fears have historically built on ideological remnants of Nazism in the country, a significant concern is that immigrants constitute an immense cultural threat.[1] Therefore, the importance of preserving Austrian cultural heritage is a mainstay of national political discourse.


The Wien Museum’s marketing of a diverse and welcoming Vienna suggests its intention to confront this national debate on immigration. Research on the role of museums in the social inclusion of immigrants has explored topics of immigrant cultural 'integration', cultural belonging, and access to cultural heritage in destination countries. In this article, I argue that the Wien Museum employs the techniques described in this research, specifically the use of curatorial voice, to wade into the political debate on immigration and to promote a vision of Viennese cultural heritage that is inclusive and welcoming of immigrants.

One of the most essential tools at a museum's disposal to participate in public debate is its use of curatorial voice. In The Socially Inclusive Museum: A Typology Re-Imagined, the library scientist Laura-Edythe S. Coleman extends the classic framework first presented by Richard Sandell to include the 'invisible' or 'disembodied' curatorial voice —a sort of gatekeeper or cultural authority within the museum, dictating the message received by its visitors.[2] For both Sandell and Coleman, the institutional role of the museum in representing cultures means that the curatorial voice is responsible for situating 'information' presented in the museum within its economic, social, political, and cultural context.[3] This contextualisation is the work of curatorial voice. What is included or excluded from the guided learning within an exhibition results from decisions made by a gatekeeping curator. Museologist Alexandra Bounia argues that the solid use of curatorial voice can constitute activism on the part of museums.[4]


Curatorial voice is significantly employed in the Vienna, My Story exhibition. Visitors are welcomed to the first gallery by a display that poses the question, ‘How did the Viennese live in the past?’. Along with prompts offering visitors to reflect on life in the city through time, the museum in the process problematizes the concept of the Viennese. As the gallery label continues: ‘Welcome to a journey of discovery into the history of the city and its inhabitants,’ suggesting that this exhibition will see the Viennese as simply the people who live in Vienna - not as Vienna's citizens, or the people born in the city, but the more inclusive inhabitants.


As visitors make their way to the exhibition's first floor, they find a series of gallery labels that discuss the historical tensions in the city between control and democracy. The period between 1700 and 1900 was a time of significant development in the city, and the gallery texts consistently highlight the role of migrant workers in these developments, particularly in the construction of the city's famous architecture. The gallery showcases the harsh conditions faced by migrant workers, including poverty and forced labour.

The following gallery asks, ‘What's more important: freedom or regulation?’ and ‘How much order do we need?’. It discusses the revolutionary protests for democracy and civil rights during the 1800s. In a sudden jump to the present day, a video entitled Democracy plays in the corner of the gallery, showcasing contemporary struggles for the right to vote in Vienna, including the symbolic Pass Egal elections that invite noncitizens, especially immigrants, to vote and protests at the exclusion of thirty per cent of Vienna's residents from official polls. This gallery exemplifies attempts by the curation to tie a history of exclusionary policies toward immigrants into the present day.


The curatorial voice on the exhibition's second floor deepens the discussion around themes of regulation, freedom, order, and democracy. It showcases the city's historical period from the turn of the 20th century to the rise of Nazism, including the role Austrians played in World War II and the development of National Socialist ideology. The gallery emphasizes the racism and bureaucratic cruelty of the Nazi regime in its systematic plundering of Jewish citizens' belongings and rights.


Significantly, the gallery about Nazism ends in a circular room, where visitor's paths to the following galleries can lead in three different directions. Visitors can explore the post-war and Cold War periods in Vienna or jump to the modern day. Alongside the doors to these subsequent historical eras, the gallery labels ask provoking questions about the legacy of Nazism. No matter which 'era' the visitor chooses to tackle next, there is a suggestion that Nazism will have its mark. Before exiting the museum, by this circular gallery plan, visitors who complete the exhibition will have to pass through the Nazism gallery at least once more, suggesting the curator's intent to have visitors continually reflect on this period.


A noteworthy feature of this circular room is a collection of interactive blocks in the centre. The faces of the blocks set a scenario about relevant social issues, and the sides of the blocks suggest various ways one might behave in response. One of the blocks presents the scenario that, ‘Over dinner, your family starts to discuss refugees.’ The sides of the blocks suggest responses ranging from hostility toward refugees to compassion. With these blocks, the museum's curators intend to engage visitors in an interactive reflection on the relationship between Nazism and anti-refugee rhetoric. Notably, the blocks do not privilege one response to the scenario over the others. It is also interesting that the blocks assume that you, the visitor, are not a refugee and have never been one. Despite its tolerant messaging, the curator's audience here does not seem inclusive.

The galleries on the post-war periods feature the histories of 'guest workers' in the country, migrant labourers who were subject to widespread hostility and systematic discrimination. One section of the gallery displays objects symbolizing this community, including Turkish tea, and an Islamic prayer rug. The gallery describes the ‘No Guest Workers!’ movement, a period when some Vienna neighbourhoods banned guest workers from living and working there. The history of bureaucratic cruelty toward perceived 'outsiders' is once again invoked in this gallery, where a label entitled Surveillance describes how a regime of forms and documents restricted guest workers from free access to the Austrian labour market by requiring them to seek permission from their employers and the police if they wished to change jobs.


This trail of bureaucratic control is echoed significantly in the contemporary gallery entitled Histories of the Present. This room begins with a label entitled Immigrant City, which describes how Vienna's growing diversity presents both opportunities and challenges. It also asks how Viennese of different backgrounds experience the growing city. The gallery continues with a section entitled An Open City? which explains the difficulty experienced by 'third country nationals' on their road to Vienna. It notes explicitly that, in many instances, long-lasting disputes with the immigration authorities are experienced as traumatic by these individuals.


The accompanying display features a table for visitors to sit and flip through binders of paperwork representing the bureaucratic process experienced by four immigrants in their pursuit of gaining authorization to live and work in the city. The binders feature annotations and descriptions of the paperwork, which help contextualize the meaning of these documents in the lives of these immigrants. The quote, ‘It was very difficult to get to Vienna. I'm staying here now!’ is on the cover of one of these files. Of the four collections, three refer to the authorization process with Viennese authorities as traumatic - describing hostile experiences, racism, and emotionally agonizing processing delays. One of these binders belongs to a refugee from Iran identified only as ‘N’. ‘N’ explains how they experienced the authorization wait time as painful, feeling that she was ‘condemned to a state of inaction, which made her feel useless.’ She shares, ‘[i]n the early years, the law, the system, the bureaucracy robbed me of my identity. I had the feeling of not being a complete person.’


In addition, this gallery explores topics such as Islamophobia, racism, and the Refugee Protection Camp in Vienna's Votivkirche in 2012. A photo entitled You're Not Alone (2014) features the first telephone of the Documentation Centre for Islamophobia in Vienna. Its label is a quote from an employee of the Documentation Centre who describes the increase in anti-Muslim hate crimes during election campaign seasons. This label attributes these periodic upticks in hate crimes to an increase in racist rhetoric by politicians corresponding to election cycles. Against Nationalism and Xenophobia is the title of a gallery label describing the 'Sea of Lights' protest on January 23rd, 1993. In this label, a representative of the essential anti-xenophobia civil society group SOS Mittmensch shares how this protest developed in opposition to the anti-foreigner popular initiative being advanced by FPO at that time.


Significantly, this gallery employs a more diffused curatorial voice that is only detected at the point of gatekeeping what is in the room. The voices populating the Histories of the Present room are not those of the curator directly but instead of the many residents of the city, primarily immigrants. This is most strongly embodied by the video presentations in the room, which feature human-sized projections along the gallery's walking corridor. In the video, several Viennese immigration experts describe how the city is changing. They answer questions about how rising immigration has changed the city. Bouthaina Alila, an art and culture educator, shares that many different cultures are welcome in Vienna: ‘Social cohesion has improved a lot. People talk to each other and spend time together in different public spaces.’ Another highlight is delivered by Kenan Güngör, an integration expert, who shares that a ‘latent sense of threat and fears of decline are projected onto the immigrants.’ He recounts a conversation with an elderly woman who asked, ‘If the immigrants are Viennese, who are we?’


The Vienna, My History exhibition at the Wien Museum is a compelling attempt to engage in and shape the public debate around immigration in Austria, drawing visitors into a nuanced exploration of Vienna's social and political history. Through a meticulous curatorial voice, the exhibition navigates historical complexities, addressing issues of migration and democracy, and, in doing so, persuades the visitor toward tolerance and inclusion. This work has the effect of rejecting 'immigrant as a threat' Austrian political discourse by promoting an inclusive vision of the city's cultural identity.


While the exhibition's curatorial voice is largely effective, there are areas for potential improvement. The galleries did not significantly present the cultural heritage of immigrant populations. More emphasis on immigrant cultural heritage would have been a dynamic way of countering the populist narrative that immigrants present a cultural threat to the city. Additionally, the historical emphasis on immigrants as labourers and as 'victims' of an unjust system did not reflect a complete picture of immigrant life in Vienna. This framing may have contributed to centring the non-immigrant as the 'true' Viennese, as the story around immigrants seems focused on how immigrants helped 'us' or how 'we' harmed 'them.'


Additional Cited Sources

Bounia, Alexandra. “Museums, Activism, and the ‘Ethics of Care’: Two Museum Exhibitions on the Refugee ‘Crisis’ in Greece in 2016.” In Heritage Discourses in Europe: Responding to Migration, Mobility, and Cultural Identities in the Twenty-First Century, 39–52. Leeds, UK: ARC Humanities Press, 2020.


Coleman, Laura-Edythe. “The Socially Inclusive Museum: A Typology Re-Imagined.” The International Journal of the Inclusive Museum 9, no. 2 (2016): 41–57.


Sauer, Birgit, and Birte Siim. “Inclusive Political Intersections of Migration, Race, Gender and Sexuality – The Cases of Austria and Denmark.” NORA-Nordic Journal of Feminist and Gender Research Vol. 28, no. No. 1 (2020): 56–69.


Thiele, Daniel, Birgit Sauer, and Otto Penz. “Right-Wing Populist Affective Governing: A Frame Analysis of Austrian Parliamentary Debates on Migration.” Patterns of Prejudice Vol. 55, no. No. 5 (2021): 457–77.

WIEN MUSEUM. “Meine Geschichte.” Accessed December 22, 2023. https://www.wienmuseum.at/meine_geschichte_plakatkampagne.


Notes

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[1] Birgit Sauer and Birte Siim, “Inclusive Political Intersections of Migration, Race, Gender and Sexuality – The Cases of Austria and Denmark,” NORA-Nordic Journal of Feminist and Gender Research 28, no. 1 (2020).

[2] Laura-Edythe Coleman, “The Socially Inclusive Museum,” The International Journal of the Inclusive Museum 9, no. 2 (2016), 5.

[3] Coleman, “The Socially Inclusive Museum,” 3.

[4] Alexandra Bounia, “Museums, Activism, and the ‘Ethics of Care’: Two Museum Exhibitions on the Refugee ‘Crisis’ in Greece in 2016,” in Heritage Discourses in Europe: Responding to Migration, Mobility, and Cultural Identities in the Twenty-First Century, 39–52 (Leeds: ARC Humanities Press, 2020).

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