Warum wurde das Völkerkundemuseum als Weltmuseum umgetauft?

15.05.2013 | 9:00 | Kwame Opoku

Ethnology Museum Vienna changes name to World Museum Vienna: What is in that name?

 As has been reported in various Austrian newspapers and other media, the Ethnology Museum (“Völkerkundemuseum”), Vienna, has changed its name to “World Museum” (“Weltmuseum”). (2) We learn that the new museum has a new logo and a new homepage http://www.weltmuseumwien.at/ and that there will be more attention given to the needs of children by reserving halls for the ZOOM Kindermuseum im Weltmuseum Wien. The new premises or the renovated premises would have a new coffee bar.

According to reports, the World Museum, which is still undergoing structural changes, will be completed in 2016. The African Section which holds the famous Benin bronzes has been closed to the public since 2000 and so would be open after a closure of 16 years.

From the reports, we get no full explanation or clarification about the reasons or motives for this change of designation although an article in Der Standard hinted that there may be ideological reasons, without explaining further what those ideological reasons might be. The director of the museum is reported to have said at the press conference where the new museum was presented that:

World Museum is a trade mark. The legal name remains Völkerkundemuseum, but please call us by the name that we now prefer.” (3) He saw the world museum as a place of meeting of peoples and cultures where values and enthusiasm for cultural diversity are experienced and transmitted.

The director hopes to make the museum one of the most liked and well-known buildings in Vienna, a place for transmitting enthusiasm and meeting on basis of equality. An important factor is that in the course of 500 years many beautiful treasures of the world have been brought to Austria which are unique in the world.(4)

The Green Party has already criticised the “new concept” of “World Museum” as an example of “worst practice” of Austrian culture practice. The Green speaker on cultural affairs in the Austrian Parliament, Wolfgang Zinggl considered the new name as political substitute action instead of a truly new museological concept. He also criticised the continued dependence of the museum on its association with the Kunsthistorisches Museum, namely the absence of planning and financial autonomy. The Austrian right-wing party, FPO, has criticised the change of name as an act in the dead of night. (“Nacht und Nebel Tat”).

Usually, when a person or an institution changes name, this reflects change in status or functions. From what we gather, there is no change in status; the old/new institution retains legally its old name and status. Moreover, the museum remains subordinate to the Art History Museum in planning and financial matters.

We turned to a paper prepared by the museum and presented at the press conference of 17 April 2013 to see if we could find more enlightenment. (5)

The first impression of the new director of the Völkerkundemuseum who is now director of the Weltmuseum when he first visited the museum was his surprise at seeing the enormous collection of historic-ethnographical objects there that had somehow found their way to Vienna (“auf irgendeinem Wege irgendwann nach Österreich gelangt sind”). The director believes he can after a year’s intensive work now present his vision and his concept of a museum as a meeting place of peoples and cultures.

The new “positioning” of the museum is presented in five points;

1. See more and hear more (“Mehr sehen und mehr hören“)

The collections reflect world-wide cultural diversity and so not only the scholarly work of the museum should be presented but also diverse perspectives.  The decisive actors should be not only persons from Vienna but also persons from the source countries of the objects in the collection.

2. Share more (“Stärker teilen”)

The museum has become exceptional through the relationship of Austria to the rest of the world. The objects in the museum are the cultural heritage of both Austria and the source countries. New relationships and cooperation with those countries should therefore be on the basis of sharing. This aspect should be made more visible for the public. (“Sie sollen für das Publikum auch verstärkt inszeniert werden.”) (6)

3. Intensify dialogue (“Den Dialog vertiefen“)

The museum has the competence for non-European cultures and should in addition to public projects, devote attention to basic research. Cooperation with museums and other institutions should be supported and intercultural dialogue intensified.

4. Develop enthusiasm (“Begeisterung entfachen”)

The museum has unutilized space in a unique building which is not easily perceived as a unit. An impressive new architecture would create an atmosphere that is inviting and exciting and in which visitors feel good and welcome.

5. Increase number of visitors (“Besucherzahlen erhöhen”)

The number of visitors to the museum should be increased through exhibitions and events. For cultural tourists, the museum should become a “must” mentioned in travel guides.

The museum’s mission statement is formulated as follows:

The World Museum, Vienna, is a meeting place for peoples and cultures where appreciation of values and enthusiasm for cultural diversity is practised and transmitted”. (7)

According to the statement, with the new name, “World Museum”, the museum wants to put world openness and the meeting of peoples and cultures on basis of equality at the centre; meeting between peoples, between cultures, between Vienna and the whole world. The concept of “World” is then said to be inseparable from the identity of the new museum.

When one reads what the museum has produced, one cannot fail to recognize that a public relations person has been at work on the paper. The language used is largely infused with public relations strategy presentations. Many of the points made, for example, increase the number of visitors to the museum or cooperate with museums and other institutions from non-European countries, reserve halls for children’s interests, have been practised by many museums all over the world that do not call themselves world museums. Moreover, the idea of the museum as a place of encounter between peoples and cultures has been discussed and used by many museum directors such as Neil MacGregor, British Museum, London and James Cuno, formerly director of the Institute o Art, Chicago and now Chief Executive Officer of the Paul Getty Museum of Art. (8)

None of the newspapers and other media reports, as well as the statement issued by the museum, explains why the Völkerkundemuseum has decided to name itself Weltmuseum. As admitted by the director of the museum, the legal name Völkerkundemuseum remains. The museum has not gained any more powers than it previously had and remains subordinate to the Kunsthistorisches Museum whose Director-General has oversight over the new museum and co-presented the new museum with the director. So what is in a name?

As in many Western museums, the desire to change a name is bound up with the desire of many to break with the past and to throw away as far as possible, the discredited links and associations with Ethnology.

Ethnology which was undoubtedly a colonial science, born in colonialism

and the museums that arose from the conjunction of colonialism and Ethnology have come under heavy criticism in the last 60 or so years. There is therefore a clear desire by many to distance themselves from this problematic ancestry.

Neil MacGregor, Director, British Museum, has expressed the view that there is a need for a new history and has emphasized the unique qualifications of the British Museum to tell the history or stories of others. (9)

Apart from calls for a new history, many ethnologists have demonstrated beyond doubt their desire and intention to break away from colonialist and racist ideas as well as from past ethnological practices. For example, the exhibition Fetish and Modernity (10) shown at the Völkerkundemuseum, Vienna, was an undoubted demonstration of the determination of many ethnologists to abandon the traditional Western assumptions that only Western societies experience modernity whereas the rest of the world remains static and has no idea or experience of modernity and advancement; a relic from Darwinian theories.

But even accepting as established, a strong desire to break with ethnological practices, why the designation “world museum” and no other name? Here we come to the crux of the matter and the apparent change of name which leaves the old designation, Völkerkundemuseum still in existence as the director of the museum stressed.

Since the end of the so-called last world war in 1945 and the creation of the United Nations Organization, with its subsidiary organizations such as UNESCO and the independence of States such as India and Pakistan 1947 and above all, since the Independence of the African States in the 1960’s, Western scholars have been very busy: they have been busy developing theories and concepts such as “universal museums”, (11), “travelling exhibitions” (12)

world museum” and “museum serving the world”. (13)

Western scholars have been busy developing theories that would justify the continued detention in Western museums of artefacts from Africa, Asia and Latin America. These artefacts, mostly looted, stolen, acquired through use of violence or under unclarified circumstances, should have been returned to the former colonies at the latest on Independence. Instead of advising museums to do the right and moral thing of returning illegally acquired artefacts, Western scholars have spent time, resources and energy in trying to justify what is plainly unjustifiable. These attempts at justification take mainly the form of arguing that certain museums serve the whole world and therefore there is no need to ask for or insist on the return of the looted cultural objects. Unfortunately for the West, since Independence the demands for the return of cultural artefacts have become loud, strong and difficult to ignore.

The United Nations, UNESCO, ICOM and several international conferences have called for their return. (14)

Strenuous attempts to convince the world, against all factual and historic evidence, that these museums serve the world have failed. But some museums have nevertheless adopted the name-chnging strategy. It is therefore no surprise that the management of the Völkerkundemuseum decided to change its name to Weltmuseum. The Vienna museum thus joins a certain number of self-styled “world museums”. These museums, at Frankfurt, Liverpool, Rotterdam are mostly characterised by being former Ethnology museums with large numbers of looted cultural artefacts from Africa, Asia and Latin America which they refuse to return despite constant demands by the legitimate owners.

In a similar situation are other museums that do not call themselves “world museum” but pretend to serve the world such as the Louvre, Musée du Quai Branly, British Museum, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and the Museums at the Museums Island, Berlin. These later museums tend to describe themselves as “universal museums.” (15)

The notion of “world museum” as applied by many is obviously more than problematic for these museums are all national museums and the designation is very misleading. (16) A truly world museum would have to be established by several States that would also set up representative governing bodies, finance the museum and appoint its director and senior officials. One State, however powerful and important, cannot set up a world museum. One cannot have a truly world museum that is financed by one government or that is subordinate to other national museums or institutions such as the Vienna museum. Nor will a truly world museum be manned by staff of one nationality. The World Museum at Liverpool is part of  the National Museums at Liverpool. http://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/wml/index.aspx 

The truth is that the notion “world museum” has been found convenient by ethnology museums that want to shed the ethnological mantel but still retain the ethnological objects illegally and illegitimately acquired in the past. Similar objections have been raised against the so-called “universal museums” that are in fact national museums such as the British Museum. It may be no accident that there are no world museums in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Museums there do not have looted/stolen Western artefacts that require justification and defence. (17)

It should be noticed that any attempt to establish a truly ” world museum” or “universal museum” would meet with the fiercest resistance from the very museums that are now very keen to use those names. For this would imply that every people and State would be free to make their contribution of cultural objects to the world institution and there would be no acceptance of one State or people hijacking the cultural objects of another. There would be a requirement to return artefacts acquired under dubious circumstances. Western States and museums are not yet ready for such general or specific restitution. This has been stated several times and most recently by museums such as Völkerkundemuseum, Vienna, in a recent meeting in Benin City, Nigeria. The Western representatives made it clear it was not their intention to return any of the Benin Bronzes to Nigeria. Somehow some people in Nigeria read those statements to mean a chance for restitution. (18)

A fundamental objection to the concept of “world museum”, as used at present, is that it does not cover world cultures in an adequate way. “World” is used here as synonym for “non-European”. It is very similar to the other nebulous concept of “world music”. Whereas Nigerian, Tibetan, Chilenian and Indian music are included in “world music” European music, such as European classical music is not included. Europeans such as Mozart, Beethoven, Sibelius, Mendelssohn-Bartholdy and Chopin are not considered as “world musicians” or “world composers”.  Can anyone explain why some of the finest products of European culture are not included in “world culture”?

Similarly, whilst the culture of African, Asian and Latin-America are classified as part of “world culture”, Austrian, German, French and British cultures do not fall into this category. A world culture without the Europeans? It is obvious that this concept of world culture is another way of describing “non-European culture. We are also reminded that there is the subject of Volkskunde which deals only with European peoples and their cultures. Vienna has a Volkskundemuseum where there are no African objects. If one is unable to overcome this racist distinction between Volkskunde and Völkerkunde, can one be ripe for a “world culture”?

This kind of arbitrary classification and the vague concepts fit perfectly into the Western scheme of values. Benin artefacts, as stated by the director of the new museum, are part of the common cultural heritage of Austria and the source country, Nigeria. But Picasso, Klimt, Rembrandt, Nitsch, Hrdlicka are not part of this common heritage. These artists are part of Western heritage. The underlying principle of classification that exposes the selfishness, greed and racism of much Western scholarship can be summarized as follows; what is yours is ours; what is mine is mine. (19)

Throughout the presentation of the concept of the new Weltmuseum, it was obvious that the whole concept is based on the existence of Europeans and Non-Europeans, Austrians and Non-Austrians, they and us, insiders and outsiders. But surely in a truly “world museum” there would be no need for such binary distinctions. The museum would belong to all of us, Austrians and Non-Austrians. The presentation comes close to such an idea but only as a rhetorical device, a set phrase, when it deals with the relations of Austria and the source countries. The right of ownership of the objects by the Africans and Asians is thus denied while confirming the actual possession by Austrians. The histories of the objects are partially distorted.

In the presentation of the new museum, a lot of emphasis was put on persons and persons from the source countries of the objects meeting in the museum. These persons from the source countries will be mainly Africans and Asians. How does one imagine these persons  will come to the museum when  all Western governments, have now strict rules regarding the granting of visa and are doing everything to discourage Africans and Asians from coming to Europe?

Indeed, Europeans have set up special military and navy forces to prevent such an entry into European Union territory, Frontex.  www.frontex.europa.eu/

As I have often written, no Western country will be prepared to grant visa to a young African who gives as ground for requesting visa, his intention to see African artefacts in the museums.

Europeans are keeping African and Asian cultural objects but are not keen to let Africans and Asians come to Europe. How then does the new museum envisage these meetings taking place, except perhaps with museum officials from those countries? Aminata Traoré, sociologist and former Minister of Culture, Mali, pointed out this fundamental paradox when the French opened in 2006 the Musée du Quai Branly, which contains most of the cultural objects the French looted/stole from their colonies:

“In our opinion, the Musée du Quai Branly is built on a deep and painful paradox since almost the totality of the Africans, Amerindians, the Australian Aborigines whose talents and creativity are being celebrated, will never cross the doorstep of the museum in view of the so-called selective immigration. It is true that measures have been taken to ensure that we can consult the archives via Internet. Thus our works of art have a right of residence at a place where we are forbidden to stay. (20)

By its structure, finances and history, the new museum cannot become a truly world museum. The establishment of a truly “world museum” has so far not been attempted by existing States owing to national selfishness and greed even among those who pretend to serve the world. The Weltmuseum Wien will join the band of museums such as those in Frankfurt, Rotterdam and Liverpool (21) that present themselves as “world museum”, or “museum of world cultures“ while keeping illegal and illegitimate acquisitions of the cultural artefacts of others; they are not even willing to return a few items to Africa, Asia and Latin America.

With the help of public relations and advertising experts, the museum will no doubt be able to get public acceptance of the designation of “world museum”. With excellent and interesting exhibitions such as those presented at the Völkerkundemuseum, for example, Benin Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria, it will gain more visitors and supporters.(22) If the plans to make the museum building more inviting to the public are implemented, many more will be attracted. Hopefully, the museum management will not remove the forbidding and impressive iron gates that discourage both visitors and unwanted guests. The later see an impregnable defence which is not to be underestimated in our age of daily robbery of art objects.

It is undoubtedly wise for the new museum to put emphasis on persons visiting the museum rather than the objects there. However, these visitors come to the museum to see the objects and will certainly want to know more about the objects. They would want to know for instance, where the Benin artefacts came from and whether they were purchased or donated as gift from the Benin people or the Nigerian government. Children, who will be coming more frequently, will with certainty want to know about the source of these “strange objects”. Some of these modern children might even want to know whether the objects can be purchased online. Hopefully, the museum will tell them the true history: the Benin artefacts were looted by the British in 1897 during an attack on Benin City where they killed people and burnt their houses; after their “heroic” deed, they sold some of the artefacts to the Austrians, Germans and others in the same invasion year, the buyers knowing fully well that these were stolen/looted objects.  Indeed, the sellers always informed the buyers that the artefacts were fresh from the recent invasion.

As children will now become an important group among the visitors to the new museum, we should recall that these European children and their parents will be

enjoying a privilege which is denied to African children and their parents, namely, the possibility to see African sculptures and other artefacts in the museum. We should remember that most of the African objects, such as the Benin bronzes have been in the museum for decades and have not been returned to their countries of origin. Indeed, most of the Benin bronzes have not been seen by the Benin people since they were looted in the nefarious British invasion of 1897. The Benin royal delegation that attended the opening of the exhibition Benin Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria emphasised that they were seeing these for the first time. Thus children in Vienna have a privilege which even the Benin Royal Family does not have: to see some of the Benin bronzes looted in 1897. Surely, there is something wrong here. The new museum could make a very valuable contribution to cultural understanding and co-operation if it returned a few of the 165 Benin bronzes it is holding. Do Austrians really need so many Benin bronzes for their cultural activities and survival?

The issue of the unlawful and illegitimate detention of the cultural artefacts of others will remain and will become more acute as Africa, Asia and Latin-America wake up and assess the true dimensions of the deprivation of cultural artefacts that are in Western museums and depots, including those of the new museum and its predecessor, Völkerkundemuseum, Wien.

“As you put this past on show today, it is our prayer that the people and the government of Austria will show humanness and magnanimity and return to us some of these objects which found their way to your country.”

Oba of Benin, Omo N’Oba Erediauwa CFR. (23)


Kwame Opoku, 12 May, 2013.





1. Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet (II, ii, 1-2)

2. Der Standard, 18 April, 2013

Kurier, 18 April, 2013. The museum informed visitors that it has changed its name as of 16 April, 2013; the new name and concept was presented to the public at a press conference on April, 2013.

3. Weltmuseum Wien“ sei „ein Markenname“, sagte Direktor Engelsman. „Der gesetzliche Name bleibt Völkerkundemuseum, aber bitte nennen Sie uns künftig bei dem Namen, den wir jetzt am liebsten haben.“ Er sehe das Weltmuseum Wien als „Treffpunkt für Menschen und Kulturen, wo Wertschätzung und Begeisterung für kulturelle Vielfalt gelebt und vermittelt werden“. http://wien.orf.at/news/stories/2580401/ 

4.“Eine ganz wichtige Qualität ist und bleibt, dass im Laufe von 500 Jahren die schönsten Kulturschätze der Welt nach Österreich gebracht wurden. Es ist einzigartig, wie da die ganze Welt reflektiert ist.“

5. Pressekonferenz am 17.4.2013


6. “Inszeniert“ can also mean play acting, without sincere commitment.

7. “Das Weltmuseum Wien ist ein Treffpunkt für Menschen und Kulturen, wo Wertschätzung und Begeisterung für kulturelle Vielfalt gelebt und vermittelt werden“.

8. Neil MacGregor “The whole world in our hands”, http://arts.guardian.co.uk/

James Cuno, Museums Matter: In Praise of the Encyclopedic Museum, University of Chicago Press, London and Chicago, 2011.

See our comments on Cunos’s book in K. Opoku, Affirmations and Declarations: Review of James Cuno’s Museums Matter”,


9. MacGregor’s vision for the British Museum   http://www.elginism.com

K. Opoku, „When Will Everybody Finally Accept that the British Museum is a British Institution? Comments on a Lecture by Neil MacGregor“. http://www.modernghana.com

Neil MacGregor’s claims that the Elgin Marbles will not return http://www.elginism.com

10. Fetish Modernity, Museum fur Völkerkunde, Vienna, 21November 2012 – 4 March 2013. The exhibition indicates the determination of contemporary ethnologists to break away from the racist ideas of their predecessors. The catalogue of the exhibition, edited by Anne-Marie Bouttiaux and Anne Seiderer, contains language that would have surprised the old ethnologists

11. K.Opoku, ”Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums: Singular Failure of an Arrogant Imperialist Project”,


12. K.Opoku, “Travelling Exhibition as Alternative to Restitution? Comments on Suggestion by Director of the British Museum”,  http://www.modernghana.com

13. K. Opoku, “When will everybody finally accept that the British Museum is a British Institution? Comments on a Lecture by Neil MacGregor,” http://www.modernghana.com

14. See General Assembly resolution, A/RES/67/80, titled “Return or restitution of cultural property to the country of origin.” https://www.un.org/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=A/67/PV.53 Athens International Conference on the „Return of Cultural Objects to their Countries of Origin”

www.unesco.org/culture/laws/pdf/Conclusions_Athens_en.p. .

15. See Tom Flynn, The Universal Museum A valid model for the 21st century?  2010,

16. K, Opoku, “Is Nationalism as such a Dangerous Phenomenon for Culture and Stolen/Looted Cultural Property? http://www.modernghana.com

17. It should be noted that none of those museums that constantly declare they share a common heritage with African peoples has thought it necessary to send any European painting or artefacts to an African museum.

18. K. Opoku, “Benin Plan of Action for “Restitution”: Will this Ensure the Return of the Looted Benin Artefacts?”


What We Understand by “Restitution”


19. K. Opoku,”Mine Is Mine but Yours is Ours: Comments on a Suggestion to Take Culture out of Cultural Property,“


20. Aminata Traoré « Nouveau millénaire, Défis libertaires » http://1libertaire.free.fr/ArtPremierInterditSejour.html,

http://www.afrikara.com Those who can read French are encouraged to read the full statement issued by Aminata Traoré, a great intellectual of our times, on the occasion of the opening of the Musée du Quai Branly. This text “Musée du Quai Branly et Immigration choisie: droit de cité” has been published at many places. On the Musée du Quai Branly.Paris,the reader may wish to read, K. Opoku,”

“Benin to Quai Branly: A Museum for the Arts of the Others or for the Stolen Arts of the Others?” www.afrikanet.info

Indigenous? Non-Western? Primitive? The Paris Museum Controversy www.antropologi.info/…/indigenous_non_western

Benin in Paris: Triumph of the Aesthetic over the Ethnological? www.modernghana.com

21. www.wereldmuseum.nl/ The Wereld Museum, Rotterdam announced its intention of selling its African artefacts in order to make up for financial shortages caused by reduction of government subsidies. Thus it would remain a “world museum” without an African Section. See K. Opoku, “Dutch Museum to sell African Collection”. http://www.modernghana.com



The Swedes have an interesting structure as far as “World Culture” is concerned; http://www.smvk.se/The four museums are situated in the two biggest cities in Sweden. The Museum of Ethnography, the Museum of Mediterranean and Near Eastern Antiquities and the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities are located in Stockholm, while the Museum of World Culture is located in Göteborg. The museums reach out to national and international audiences through travelling exhibitions and cooperative projects”.

22. See the catalogue of the exhibition edited by Barbara Plankensteiner, Benin Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria, Snoeck, 2007.


23. Plankensteiner, Ibid. p.3. In the Introductory Note to the above-mentioned catalogue of the exhibition, after emphasizing how important the Benin works are as records of Benin history and objects of religious importance the Oba of Benin makes a plea to the Austrians for the return of some of the Benin bronzes. What else must a king of a people whose cultural objects have been robbed with violence by the British under well-known circumstances do? The answer of the then director of the Völkerkundemuseum was a flat denial of any possibility of restitution.

See K.Opoku, “Opening of the exhibition Benin-Kings and Ritual Arts from Nigeria” www.culture-and-development.info/…/benin1.htm

K,Opoku, ” Benin to Berlin Ethnologisches Museum: Are Benin Bronzes made in Berlin?” http://www.modernghana.com


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