Volume 21, Issue 1 | Spring 2022

The Museum Age in Austria-Hungary: Art and Empire in the Long Nineteenth Century by Matthew Rampley, Markian Prokopovych, and Nóra Veszprémi

Reviewed by Samuel D. Albert

Matthew Rampley, Markian Prokopovych, and Nóra Veszprémi,
The Museum Age in Austria-Hungary: Art and Empire in the Long Nineteenth Century.
University Park: Pennsylvania State University, 2021.
290 pp.; 47 b&w illus.; selected bibliography; index.
$99.95 (hardcover)
ISBN: 9780271087108

The Hungarian polyglot author Sandor (Alexander) Lenard once said that he could not simply translate his autobiography, Valley of the Latin Bear, from its original Hungarian, but had to rewrite it in each language he spoke.‍[1] His life, he said, was different in Hungarian than it was in English, German, French, or any other language he spoke. The same is true of the history of museums in Austria-Hungarian; the Czech, Slovak, or Slovene history of the museum and museology is different than either the Austrian or the Hungarian, even if all were to focus on the same museum.

The history and meaning of museums in the Austro-Hungarian Empire is the focus of the new volume The Museum Age in Austria-Hungary: Art and Empire in the Long Nineteenth Century authored by Matthew Rampley, Nóra Veszprémi, and Markian Prokopovych. The first two authors are associated with CRAACE (Continuity/Rupture: Art and Architecture in Central Europe 1918–1939),‍[2] a five-year long research program now based at Brno’s Masaryk University, for which Rampley is Principal Investigator and Veszprémi is one of the Research Associates. Prokopovych, though not formally associated with the project, is a long-time collaborator and Assistant Professor of History at Durham University. Their previous collaboration focused on the same time and place but was centered on applied art museums.‍[3] The present volume is a synoptic overview of the history, rise and propagation, and meaning—both imperial and local—of fine art museums in Austria-Hungary.‍[4]

After an introduction by Rampley, which lays out the ideological and historiographic framework underlying the volume, the book is divided into six chapters, each focusing on a different aspect of the museum in Austria-Hungary with authorship of the chapters divided among the three principals. The chapters move in a logical progression, from a general survey to more specialized topics. The book focuses on the museum in the broadest sense: the relation between the museum and host city; the architecture of the museum; the rise of museum professions; practices of display; and, finally, the reception of museums. After this sweeping overview, there is an epilogue, which focuses briefly on the destiny of the museums and museology in the aftermath of the imperial breakup.

In the first chapter, “The Museological Landscape of Austria-Hungary,” Rampley considers the range of Fine Art museums in the Habsburg Empire. In keeping with the scope of the book, all three of the authors envision Austria-Hungary in the broadest, most inclusive terms, so that Rampley’s survey, for instance, focuses not just on the standard Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna or the Fine Arts Museum in Budapest, but also considers lesser-known but no less significant museums, such as Sibiu’s Brukenthal Museum, Prague’s Rudolfinum, or Cracow’s Czartoryski Museum, as well as private collections of significance. Some of these collections served as the eventual basis for local museums, while others were, after the breakup of the Empire, incorporated into the “new” national museums. Many of these collections were created with the goal of fostering stronger local identity, just as the larger national museums in the imperial capitals were intended to foster imperial identity. These museums in the provinces (after reading Rampley’s discussion, one studiously avoids the use of the word “provincial”) are perhaps, ultimately, more significant than the larger, better-known museums; including these lesser-known museums bolsters Rampley’s argument over the meaning of the museums.

The second chapter, by Prokopovych, “The Museum and the City,” looks at a variety of museums, generally the same as considered by Rampley in the previous chapter, but from an urbanistic point of view. The focus shifts to how the cities that were the homes to the various museums discussed, envisioned, and conceived of them. Again, while the imperial capitals, Vienna and Budapest, are examined, so too are smaller, but no less interesting structures in Prague, Cracow, or Zagreb, to name a few.

After Prokopovych’s consideration of the urbanistic significance of museums, Rampley focuses on the architectural style and interior decoration of museums in the third chapter. While taking into account larger and broader European influences, especially that of neoclassicism, the chapter then moves to considering the role of nationalism in the choice of architecture (and architects), focusing on the dichotomy between structures such as the Budapest Applied Arts Museum, whose nationalist style by the “father” of Hungarian national architecture Ödön Lechner, dramatically sets it apart from the neoclassical style of the Budapest Fine Arts Museum, the national fine arts museum. It is here, in this chapter, that the confounding and fascinating complexity of museums in Austria-Hungary emerges. The same architectural style, say neoclassicism, can at once, be representative of the Empire as a whole, while also being appropriate to constituent parts of the Empire, such as Budapest’s Fine Arts Museum or Prague’s Rudolfinum, while also being considered the antithesis of what a national museum should look like.

In this chapter, Rampley also provides a cogent and fascinating discussion of the interior organization and decoration of the museums, elements which architectural historians often overlook or only consider cursorily. The significance of the interior disposition and decoration becomes the starting point for a consideration of who the intended audiences of the museums were.

The location and construction of the museum having been considered, the book’s focus in the fourth chapter, by Nora Veszprémi, “Curators, Conservators, Scholars: The Rise of the Museum Professions” moves to the curatorial staff. While the significance of the museums in the imperial capitals is not neglected, attention is rightly paid to those smaller museums, where the professionalization of the curatorial staff played an important role in defining the local significance and prestige of the museum. In a shift from the local amateur curator, the period saw a rise—Europe-wide—of the idea of professional curators who were expected to attain a specified standard of training and education. While this was not a novelty in larger cities, it remade the local museum. No longer was the museum the purview of the interested amateur. Many of the smaller museums, points of local pride, rose to the challenge, attracting qualified curators meeting the new standards and working to integrate themselves into a larger, Imperial or even European framework; many published their own scientific annuals, in emulation of larger museums.

The following chapter, also by Veszprémi, “‘Uniques’ and Stories: Principles and Practices of Display,” builds on the material presented in the previous chapter, moving from the curators and their training to the materials this new generation of curators presented.

The concluding chapter, by Prokopovych, “Museums and Their Public: Visitors, Societies, and the Press” rounds out the book by looking at the visitors of the museum. He explores how those spaces, whose genesis—both generally and specifically—were the subjects of the previous five chapters, were used and, interestingly, abused by the public and how they were presented by the press.

The book concludes with an epilogue by Rampley, bringing the narrative to the post-imperial world, when the multi-national Habsburg Empire collapsed into many nations. The shift of gravity, the escape from the Vienna/Budapest orbit, suddenly invested museums in smaller cities and in the provinces with a new national and cultural significance.

The scope of the book is an ambitious one. It seeks to summarize a history which occurred in fifteen different languages in an empire which reached from Switzerland to Ukraine, from Poland to the Balkans. The authors have delved into a breathtaking array of national, local, museum, and personal archives, academic and popular sources, and even legislative history. Given the range of materials and languages, as well as the geographic dispersal of the previously centralized archives of the Empire to the capitals of the new, constituent nations, this work in finding and mastering this material is even more impressive.

There is little to criticize in the book; each of the chapters is clearly written, presenting a foundation and then expanding on it. That, though, might be the only area for criticism. While the book is marketed as a monograph, it reads much more like a collection of individual essays. Each chapter seems to be thought of as a stand-alone work and the authors all endeavor to ensure the reader is familiar with the basics. This means though, that the same fundamental material is presented and re-presented in several chapters before moving on to the more individual focus of each particular chapter. If the reader merely dips into a chapter of interest, this poses no problem, but reading the book in one sitting becomes somewhat repetitive.

A word about the physical volume itself: not only is it handsome and well-designed, its production is flawless. The images employed, drawn from a variety of sources: personal photographs, Wikimedia commons, museum and national archives, and the popular press, are clearly and well reprinted and appropriately sized, making them invaluable additions to the text. Further, given the number of languages referenced and the specialized typography and diacriticals needed, it is a testament to the copy-editor—an unfortunately vanishing breed—that each of the varied alphabets is correctly and properly deployed in both the text and in the bibliography. Additionally, not only is there a full, comprehensive, and intelligently organized bibliography, there is also a well-thought out and well-organized index, a sadly increasingly rare feature of the modern academic press. A welcome feature of the index is its inclusion of multiple names and spellings of locales. In Austria-Hungary, cities would often have three different (sometimes related, sometimes not) names: one in German, one in Hungarian, and one in the local idiom.

Given the sheer scope of the geographic area the authors are dealing with, and the concomitant number of museums and collections within that area worth exploring, it would be impossible to produce a single, comprehensive volume. But this volume which Matthew Rampley, Nóra Veszprémi, and Markian Prokopovych have produced should be held up as a model to be emulated for others who seek to expand upon their work.


[1] Originally published in German as Die Kuh auf dem Bast, by Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt GmbH., Stuttgart, 1963. Alexander Lenard, The Valley of the Latin Bear (Boston: E.P. Dutton, 1965).

[2] CRAACE Continuity/Rupture: Art and Architecture in Central Europe 1918–1939, accessed January 18, 2022, https://craace.com/.

[3] Matthew Rampley, Markian Prokopovych, and Nóra Veszprémi, Liberalism, Nationalism and Design Reform in the Habsburg Empire: Museums of Design, Industry and the Applied Arts (London: Routledge, 2020).

[4]There is a long history of applied art museums in Austria-Hungary, actually longer than that of fine art museums. Vienna’s Museum für angewandte Kunst and Budapest’s Iparművészeti Múzeum, founded in 1863 and 1872 respectively, were the second and third museums of applied art in Europe, after London’s 1857 South Kensington Museum (now Victoria and Albert Museum), which was the model for both.