Wien Museum shows Vienna is not perfect, but that's what makes it beautiful

The newly reopened facility stands out as both a beacon of modernity and historical preservation

The Wien Museum on Karlsplatz in Vienna reopened to the public on Wednesday. Photo: Katy Gillett / The National
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Poldi, an enormous Prater whale, floats mid-air above a 5.4-metre model of St Stephen’s Cathedral in the Wien Museum, which reopened to the public as Austria’s first free museum on Wednesday, after a four-year renovation.

The wood and copper plate structure, spanning 10 metres long and weighing 1.4 tonnes, was originally created in the 1950s to sit on the roof of Zum Walfisch, a centuries-old restaurant in Wiener Wurstelprater that was demolished in 2013. Instead of allowing Poldi to go with it, the museum stepped in and rescued him.

Poldi became the first resident of the new and improved Wien Museum. The creature – now stabilised with wooden beams and tubular steel construction – is so big, he had to be hoisted into the building before the walls were finished.

But he had to be saved, says Florian Pollack, the museum’s head of communication and development. After all, he’s a beloved slice of Viennese history, just like his new home.

A surprising structure

The Wien Museum, originally designed by architect Oswald Haerdtl, first opened in 1959 on Karlsplatz, one of the Austrian capital’s most famous squares. Since the 1980s, however, it has sorely needed an upgrade and expansion, and it wasn’t until 2013 that the Vienna City Council finally decided to go ahead.

An anonymous architectural competition was held in 2015, which attracted entries from world-famous practices such as Zaha Hadid Architects and Foster + Partners. The winner was Austrian team Certov, Winkler + Ruck, which decided to create two extra levels for the building that now float atop the existing structure, much of which has been carefully and cleverly preserved.

The result is surprising; huge black steel cantilevers cut through the concrete structure, allowing the new floors to appear as if they’re floating with no columns. A glazed glass entrance space is inviting and, from the outside, this stark, modern construction looks nothing like a national history museum.

Turning curation on its head

Educators and curators worked together on the content for the Wien Museum’s new permanent exhibition, Vienna. My History – not the norm in the museum world – but Pollack says it was important to the team to stay true to the city’s history while still making it engaging.

It’s laid out in a chronological, circular manner. “It’s a bit like the Guggenheim Museum in New York, but with three floors instead of seven,” Pollack explains. “Or like Ikea,” he adds with a laugh.

The exhibition takes visitors from prehistoric to contemporary times via 13 chapters and 1,700 objects, plus more than 100 media stations and interactive displays. There are many highlights. Poldi, of course, stands out, alongside the recreation of the cathedral, arguably Vienna’s most famous landmark.

There are several incredibly intricate models of Vienna as it was at various points throughout history, as well as preserved original items that date back centuries, such as a masterful gothic blueprint on parchment from the 1400s of St Stephen’s north tower, which was never completed.

Elsewhere, there’s a section dedicated to the second Ottoman siege in 1683. The Wien Museum has played a central role in spreading a certain narrative of this time, with a focus on heroic Austrian military leaders who saved the city. In the past, it displayed so-called Turkish loot, a collection of Ottoman weapons seized as spoils following Vienna’s liberation.

But with this new exhibition, it questions this narrative, asking if these supposed spoils actually had anything to do with the siege. Where these items are displayed, handwritten notes read “unlikely” or “what’s missing?” and “blank spot!”.

The room serves as a historical laboratory, says Pollack. “We question history because, who writes history?”

The good and the bad

A collection of original Nazi propaganda is also on display, something that caused much debate within the museum team as to how they might showcase it – or if they should at all.

“We’re not an art museum, we’re a history museum,” says Pollack. “We know some people will likely get offended, while others might take selfies by Hitler’s bust … but as the city museum, we were collecting and these things came into the collection, so we have to show it.”

Much thought has gone into the presentation of these pieces so as not to iconise them. A painting of Hitler in 1938, when he made his infamous Hofburg speech, is framed and leaning against a reflective stand. The artwork, which is not particularly well made or well kept, was deliberately not restored nor mounted. “It’s on the floor and at a height where people can look over it at themselves in the reflective surface. We want people to think, ‘Where might I have been? Where were my grandparents?’”

Dotted throughout the exhibition are also four period rooms, each a recreation of a famous living space using original furniture. For example, the room of Franz Grillparzer, one of Austria’s most prominent 19th-century playwrights. In front of it is a 1.3-square-metre space that depicts his maid’s sleeping quarters – about the size of a child's bed – as a comparison to his own lavish space.

In another area, the living room of celebrated Austrian architect Adolf Loos is on display, and the literature that accompanies it does not shy away from mentioning the man was also a paedophile.

Elsewhere, visitors learn the history of the Ringstrasse, a grand circular boulevard that replaced the city’s medieval fortifications. It’s part of Vienna’s historic centre, a designated Unesco World Heritage Site, but on display here are the workers who created it while living in slave-like conditions.

“We acknowledge reality,” says Pollack.

Histories of the present

The final section takes us to modern day, and screens hang from the ceiling with projections of everyday people who live and work in the city talking about what matters now.

There’s a plaque that invites visitors to help the team locate other objects that exemplify Vienna’s contemporary culture. “The stories a museum can tell are always incomplete,” it reads.

One of the last items is a Foodora bag, something that makes the tour group laugh. “The restoration department hates this,” Pollack jokes, since the material will likely disintegrate in less than a decade. “But it has so much to say. You can talk about the pandemic, and how we were forced to eat differently. You can talk about migration to the city. You can talk about today’s working conditions.”

This slice of the city’s culinary history might not be as treasured as Poldi the prater whale, but if the Wien Museum teaches us anything, it’s that Vienna, and indeed history itself, is not perfect – but that’s what makes it fascinating.

Updated: December 13, 2023, 10:57 AM