A chat with Steven Engelsman


We are thrilled that the upcoming TEDxVienna City 2.0 event will be hosted at the Weltmuseum Wien, a venue both rich in historical connections and illustrating new frontiers of all types. With its newly established brand it is a beacon for generating and embracing change in cities and reaching out to communities.

We met Director Steven Engelsman to talk to him about his job, his take on the museum`s mindset & outreach and experiences in his professional life.

Interview with the Director of Weltmuseum Vienna

TEDxVienna`s City 2.0 event is about change and innovation in cities and how we can adopt new forms of urbanism. Mr. Engelsman, you have been in Vienna for more than a year now since your appointment as Director of the former Museum of Ethnology, now Weltmuseum Wien. What is in your opinion the best thing about Vienna and what needs to be changed?

Of course, this is a matter of horizon. And my horizon is a very small one, and a very large one at the same time. My horizon is this museum, and for me this is the absolutely best thing in Vienna; this museum and its connection to the past with this astonishing evidence that is in our storage. We hold the evidence of Austria`s involvement with the whole world for the last 500 years. And no one has really seen it for the last thirty years!

So there are hidden treasures?

Hidden treasures, absolutely! And we want to change this. We want these treasures to be visible again.

Fortunately the plan presented to the Minister to reopen the museum and show the collections again was adopted and made possible, including funding to refurbish the museum in the next 45 months.

This is already a great change. Everybody can see this even from the outside. The museum`s  name was changed to “Weltmuseum” (World Museum). I`m sure there have been other changes. So, what has happened so far?

What I think is important is to get an insight, come to grips with the museum and its huge collection and its people and the environment we are working in with the connection to the museum of history of arts (Kunsthistorisches Museum), the people here, the community and  from that we will shape the strategy and outline of the museum and its exhibitions.

It`s hard work to establish this identity and communicate it to the outside world. To become the Weltmuseum Wien.

What does this new identity look and feel like?

One of the nicest things we have done this year is the design of the dance exhibition, the sujet of the dancer with his mask. That stands out very much .

Another example is a great cooperation we had with Implustanz, where performance and dance artists were invited to occupy the museum, to go into the farest corners of the museum and into the storage and do their artwork there. And this combined two worlds very nicely: the moving world and the static one. All of a sudden, the static museum became moving and the moving became static. A fantastic combination! And it was well received in public.

The best thing that we can do with our new brand of “Weltmuseum” is to show what the connections are that we cherish, what our mindset is and how we operate.

Overcoming  outdated concepts

Still the new brand “Weltmuseum” is quite a huge promise, isn`t it?

Definitely! And we have been criticized for this name because people want the traditional name as it is written in the law because they feel threatened by losing a strong, traditional term like “Völkerkunde” (ethnology).

Another criticism that we got is that “Weltmuseum” is too general, so we have a pay-off here, but we try to be very clear: (switching to German): Worum geht`s im Weltmuseum Wien? Es geht um Menschen. (What is Weltmuseum Vienna about? It`s about people.) And we will answer this question over and over again.

And still, we are convinced that Weltmuseum is a great name. The whole concept and mindset of ethnology comes from the colonial era, where the scholar would be studying the other peoples that were far away. And this always carries the insinuation that the scholar is superior and the object of study is inferior.  There is no equal level of engagement with the other and that`s no longer acceptable.

Times have changed. The people studied by ethnologists in the past have actually moved to Austria. They have immigrated here, so Vienna, right now is a fantastic multiethnic, multicultural city. A metropolis.

We want to create a museum as a platform where all communities – immigrant or not – will meet and be in contact with their own culture again as well as with other cultures. So in this museum the world meets Vienna. And Vienna meets the world. So, why not call it “Weltmuseum”?

A non-linear career?

Thus the change to Weltmuseum. But change has played a big role in your career as well. You have not only been a Director at the Weltmuseum and before of the museum of ethnology in Leiden, but are a mathematical scientist by education. Based on these changes in your career, what advice can you give?

Well, the simplest advice is: Don`t bother about jobs. Do what you like and do it as well as possible.

In my school days I was good at mathematics. I would help my teacher: if he couldn`t solve the problem I would do it for him. Then I went to university and thought “I am a clever mathematician so now I will become a brilliant one”. But of course there were 150 others who thought the same and really were more clever than me. Actually there were only a few things about mathematics that I really liked when I studied. I nearly dropped out, but then I came across the history of mathematics. And this is a fascinating subject, of how people – the brilliant men of the past – have come to grips with problems and how they have solved them. So I thought: “If I cannot do it myself I can see how they have done it.” And I deeply involved myself into the history of mathematics. So I wrote my PhD thesis about one of the many issues that are lingering in the history of mathematics.

That doesn`t give you a job of course. There is no research job on this, unless if maybe you`re the absolute top of the field. I – of course – was not the absolute top.

But I liked it. So, I went to the museum of the history of science and they asked me whether I would be the curator for the museum of the history of physics. Now, you see, I didn’t know anything about the history of physics. But I took the job. And soon I was rather managing the museum as its deputy director than doing the history of physics. I`m rather sorry for the history of physics. I`ve never been good at it, never came to grips with it.

But from then on I helped building a new museum on the history of science and then I got a call whether I would be the director of the Museum of Ethnology in Leiden because they couldn´t find an ethnologist to do it.

And you took the job?

I thought “This is great. This is completely new. It`s about people who have been exploring the whole world and have come in contact with others that they didn`t know and didn`t understand.” And I was interested in how they`ve come to grips with those people. So, again it`s this historical question that`s always fascinated me. Since then I have been working in museums where I was fascinated by the content.

When the call to Vienna came I was like “Gee! That is the top. Living in Vienna and refurbishing this excellent museum.” And this is what I have come here to do for the next five years.

Of course, TEDxVienna wishes the best of luck to our host venue “Weltmuseum” for this refurbishment and a lot of success to Steven Engelsman in directing it!

Join us on Friday at our City 2.0 conference and experience the Weltmuseum Wien up close. Attendees are granted one free entry each to the Weltmuseum until the 30th of December 2013. Therefore don’t hesitate and grab a ticket now.

photos 1, 2, 3

Header Image(s) from Pixabay & Gratisography

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