A Struggle for Identity in Austria-Hungary

March 12, 2014
Matthew Rampley, chair of the art history department at the University of Birmingham, UK, delivers his lecture “Museums and the Construction of Identity,” at Adolphus Busch Hall.

During the annual Busch-Reisinger Museum Lecture, held recently at Adolphus Busch Hall, British art historian Matthew Rampley explored the fate of museums of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which were caught in an identity struggle as they tried to project both a multilingual and diverse culture as well as a unified, national identity.

Rampley, chair of the art history department at the University of Birmingham, UK, gave examples of museums in Vienna, Cracow, Brno, and elsewhere that sought to appear cosmopolitan but “became increasingly important instruments of the state.”

By the early 20th century, Austria-Hungary had shattered into a group of nation-states, including today’s imperial diaspora of Austria, Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia, and the Czech Republic. As a result, the former museums there are little visited today. “They are themselves museum pieces,” said Rampley. In the end, the museums failed to sell the cosmopolitan ideal or to “articulate more than a national identity.”

Rampley noted that the lack of cultural unity is still an issue in Europe, played out in the tension between the identity of individual nations and that of the European Union as a whole. This theme featured in the discussions making up the Busch-Reisinger Museum Study Day, held the day after Rampley’s lecture.  

The Busch-Reisinger Museum Lectures, sponsored by the German Friends of the Busch-Reisinger Museum, present important speakers on topics of central and northern European art.