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Kwame Opoku: Vienna World Museum is Shrinking

According to reports in Austrian media, the so-called Vienna World Museum's exhibition space will shrink. So why, asks cultural comentator Kwame Opoku, is the museum keeping objects like the looted Benin Bronzes which it cannot display anyway, whilst the legitimate owners have been asking for the return of some of the artefacts?

According to reports in the Austrian media, the World Museum, Vienna, will be giving up some 700 sq .m. of its space of 4600 sq.m for a House of History that is to be established in the Hofburg, the imperial palace where the World Museum has been since 1928.
This surprising decision was made by the Minister for Culture but is apparently also supported by the Director of the museum. (1) As readers may recall, the museum has been closed since 2000 for repairs. (2)

Most museums have complained of inadequate space for displaying the artefacts they hold and have been requesting more space, resulting in new buildings or continued complaints. This is the first time that an important museum has actually been deprived of some of its existing space. Is this a reflection of the City’s slogan:”Wien ist anders”, Vienna is different?

This shocking decision is said to be supported also by the present director of the museum who had previously stated he was surprised by the decision and was reported to have said the decision came to him as a thunderbolt. (3) Most readers will recognize that the director probably had no choice in the matter. Museum directors have not been known to display any tendency to demolition. They rather tend to be for aggrandizement and for the expansion of their establishment and its resources, both in terms of artefacts, space and personnel. The museum world has never embraced the notion that small is beautiful.

In addition, the Vienna World Museum is said to have now at its disposal only 130.000 Euros for exhibitions compared to a museum like Quai Branly Museum, Paris, that has at its disposal more than 5 millions Euros for exhibitions.

One does not need to have the foresight of a prophet to predict that a museum that has reduced space and less money for exhibition is not very likely to attract huge crowds; its attractions have been reduced with the consequent loss of importance and prestige. Diminished space, diminished resources are more likely to result in diminished prestige.

The Austrian authorities clearly demonstrate in this matter that they do not attach much importance to the World Museum,Vienna. They also show thereby that they do not necessarily attach great value to the non-European cultural objects that are in the museum as compared to European works in a museum such as the Kunsthistorisches Museum.

It is not for me to advise Austria as to how it utilises its resources or organizes its museums but as a person who has been concerned with museums and their artefacts, especially the non-European artefacts in Western museums, an obvious diminution of the status and importance of such museums cannot escape my attention as an observer.

Whatever dispositions are made as regards the World Museum, our constant interest has been the fate of the invaluable African artefacts in this museum. We have always advocated the restitution of some of these objects to their rightful owners in Africa. We have in countless articles suggested that, in all fairness, the World Museum, Vienna, should return to the Benin Monarch some of the 167 Benin Bronzes it holds. (4)

The position regarding the Benin Bronzes in Vienna is quite extraordinary.

These fine works of art from Benin were looted by a British invasion army in 1897 and, later in the same year of invasion, some of the booty items were sold to Austria. The Benin Monarch has at various occasions repeatedly requested the return of some of his precious artefacts but so far, not a single object has been returned by the World Museum despite United Nations and UNESCO resolutions. (5) The museum has since 2000 been closed to the public as stated already. Visitors going to Vienna from Benin or elsewhere cannot see these excellent works of art. When, and if, the World Museum reopens in 2017 as projected, it will have less space for displaying the 167 Benin Bronzes as well as the other items of the 200,000 objects it holds. So why is the museum keeping objects it cannot display whilst the owners have been asking for the return of some of the artefacts?

Kwame Opoku, 23 January,2015


1. http://wien.orf.at/news/stories/2690173/
Offener Brief von ICOM Österreich an Bundesminister Dr. Josef Ostermayer,16.01.2015
2. Kwame Opoku, www.modernghana.com/.../ethnology-museum-vienna-changes-name-to...
3. „Der 2012 bestellte neue Direktor des Museums für Völkerkunde, Steven Engelsman, der das Haus 2013 in "Weltmuseum Wien" umbenannt und Pläne zu einer Verschränkung der Weltruf genießenden Sammlungen des Hauses mit den wichtigen Fragen der Gegenwart vorgelegt hatte, berichtete davon, wie er am 20. November bei einem Termin mit Minister Ostermayer aus allen Wolken gefallen sei, als er die neuen Vorstellungen der Politik erfahren musste. "In einem einzigen Moment wandelte sich Rückenwind in Gegenwind“.
Weltmuseum Wien: "Redimensionierung in die andere Richtung" gefordertAPA 15.1.2015
www.weltmuseumwien.at Comments of the Director oft he World Museum
4. K.Opoku, “Queen-Mother Idia and Others Must Return Home: Training Courses are no Substitutes for Looted Treasures” www.modernghana.com/.../queen-mother-idia-and-others-must-return-h
5. K. Opoku “Opening of the Exhibition Benin Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria”, www.culture-and-development.info
K. Opoku, “Further Report from the exhibition “Benin-Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria” www.modernghana.com/.../further-report-from-the-exhibition-benin-kin
Almost every Western museum has some Benin objects. Here is a short list of some of the places where the Benin Bronzes are to be found and their numbers. Various catalogues of exhibitions on Benin art or African art also list the private collections of the Benin Bronzes. Many museums refuse to inform the public about the number of Benin artefacts they have and do not display permanently the Benin artefacts in their possession since they do not have enough space. A museum such as Völkerkundemuseum, Vienna, now World Museum, has closed since 15 years the African section where the Benin artefacts were, apparently due to renovation works which are not likely to be finished before 2017. Since that museum will have less space in future, it will clearly not be in a position to display all the Benin Bronzes it holds.
Berlin – Ethnologisches Museum 580.
Boston, – Museum of Fine Arts 28.
Chicago – Art Institute of Chicago 20, Field Museum 400.
Cologne – Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum 73.
Glasgow _ Kelvingrove and St, Mungo’s Museum of Religious Life 22.
Hamburg – Museum für Völkerkunde, Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe 196.
Dresden – Staatliches Museum für Völkerkunde 182.
Leipzig – Museum für Völkerkunde 87.
Leiden – Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde 98.
London – British Museum 900.
New York – Metropolitan Museum of Fine Art 163.
Oxford – Pitt-Rivers Museum/ Pitt-Rivers country residence, Rushmore in Farnham/Dorset 327.
Stuttgart – Linden Museum-Staatliches Museum für Völkerkunde 80.
Vienna – Museum für Völkerkunde now World Museum 167.

Picture: „Corps de Logis Hofburg interior2“ von Gryffindor. Lizenziert unter CC BY-SA 3.0 über Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Corps_de_Logis_Hofburg_interior2.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Corps_de_Logis_Hofburg_interior2.jpg (Geschnitten auf 10x15)

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