Questioning cultural identity at the Weltmuseum Wien

4th of February 2018, Vienna (Austria)

According to Oxford Dictionary, cultural identity is the definition of groups or individuals in terms of cultural or subcultural categories (including ethnicity, nationality, language, religion, and gender). In stereotyping, this is framed in terms of difference or otherness. Similar terms are: ethnic identity; gender identity; identity; lifestyle; national identity.

During a university lecture I have been motivated to critically engage with the matter of global art / exhibition making and ethnographic museums, while at the Weltmuseum Wien, I encountered an installation by Austrian artist Lisl Ponger, who has long explored the constructed nature of (cultural) identity, our—often stereotypical— ideas and images of “the other” and the associated questions of visual representation.

Her works frequently engage with the academic disciplines of ethnology and anthropology, whose methods and politics become manifest in the collection and exhibition practices of ethnographic museums.

Visitors are invited to take part in an explanatory journey that starts out from six large-scale, staged photographs in light boxes (see below) and a 2 channel installation with the title “The Master Narrative” which lasts a full museum day and narrates about the following plot:

In Tahiti they will witness a conference. At a garden party in a tropical landscape (located in the entrance hall of the Weltmuseum Vienna) Christopher Columbus chats with Margaret Mead over a glass of wine and Franz Boas puts on a performance. The artist herself (…) raises the curtain on his own museum. As with the woman in Sigmund Freud’s study, he has a categorised and labelled a collection of non-European objects. The list tattooed on a woman’s lower arm shows the genealogy of white appropriation of foreign lands and provides hints about the contents of the installation.

Statues, museums, famous people and important anniversaries are found yet again on stamps and first day covers, those small envelopes where the postal services of various nations celebrate at various times and immortalise them all for the future.

By treating the Western middle class as an object of study in the same way that, even today, exhibitions make a spectacle out of “exotic” peoples or ethnic groups in remote parts of the non-Western world, Ponger strikingly illustrates how many museums operate; the resulting exercise in deconstruction invites critical engagement with these mechanisms.

Just as many other ethnographic museums around the world, the Weltmuseum Wien states that’s it’s necessary to take a critical look into its own past in order to shape its future. 

In the course of the last few centuries, some of what can be seen today was collected under questionable circumstances. Therefore it’s most important to have an open dialogue, be self-critical and regard the museum as a forum in which as many voices as possible should be heard.

Ethnological museums are witnesses to the cultural diversity and changes of human societies, while exhibitions provide ethnological museums with an opportunity to display their collections to a wider audience. The objects they preserve are dedicated to the better understanding of individual cultures or regions of the world. They also offer a comparative approach to the entire spectrum of cultural diversity. In their examination of cultural differences and that which all people have in common, ethnological museums render an important contribution to the understanding of a world that has become much smaller due to the improved possibilities of technology and communication, and at the same time increasingly multicultural due to migration.

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