The Elementary in Culture

Die Presse (9/22/04)
Oliver Hochadel

The Museum of Ethnology is Finally Exhibiting the Collection of the Jewish Researcher, Eugenie Goldstern (1883-1942)

The cows and oxen are made out of branches. The forks of the branches stand for the horns, while the patterns of the hide are carved into the wood. A billy goat is made out of a toe bone and sheep out of the cones from a larch. In their simplicity and abstractness, the figures of animals appear archaic. They are not, however, cult objects from the Stone Age but rather children’s toys from the early 20th century, primarily from the western Alpine region. Some of these pieces are from the Eugenie Goldstern Collection, which the researcher had given or sold to the Museum of Ethnology in Vienna between 1911 and 1930.

The exhibit, "Ur-Ethnographie," is showing now for the first time the entire collection of 806 objects: Salt containers in the form of hens, sleds with animal bones as vats, wooden potatoe mashers - evidence from a modern but extensively untouched folk culture which Goldstern tracked down with skill and a systematic gaze into isolated mountain villages of Wallis, Graubünden and Savoyen. The exhibit emphasizes the comparative aspect by adding objects taken from other cultures, such as Africa and Asia.

At the beginning of the 20th century, ethnographers were "in search of the elementary in culture," as stated in the subheading of the exhibit. But the arrangement appears somewhat thrown together, as if one had quickly emptied out the stored-away boxes. The animal toys, the most important part of the collection, are crammed together into a single display case. The correlation between object and description is somewhat for puzzle fanatics, as if while assembling the exhibit, it had to go fast. The catalogue offers little more than the list of objects.

With this exhibit, the Museum of Ethnology makes - if somewhat late - amends with the past. But the exhibit certainly could have been a bit more direct and self-critical.

In 1905 the Goldstern family, Jewish business people from Odessa, fled to Vienna from the pogroms during the times of the Russian Czar. As a woman with a Russian matura, Eugenie was able to enroll as a student at the University of Vienna with the status of auditor, and finally in 1920 she received her Ph.D. in Fribourg, Switzerland. She began her field work in 1912, and during the winter of 1913/14, she spent time living in a stall, side by side with livestock and dwellers from Bessans in Savoyen. Her work on the French mountain village is considered one of the first monographs on a community.

After 1924 Goldstern stopped publishing, and at the end of the 20s, she stopped her field research and withdrew totally. On June 14, 1942, she was deported from Vienna and assassinated in the Polish concentration camp of Izbica. Michael Haberlandt was founder of the Museum; his son, Arthur Haberlandt, was the museum’s director from 1924 to 1945. As a staunch Nazi, he broke all ties with Goldstern beginning in the 1930s.

Since 1929 the researcher who, during the times of inflation at the beginning of the 1920s, had supported the Museum with a considerable sum from her own dowry, was no longer registered as a member of the Vienna Association for Ethnology. One would have gladly learned from the exhibit the kind of ethnology carried out during the two world wars and for what reason the research contributed by Goldstern, who originally studied with Michael Haberlandt, was refused a place in the museum.

Goldstern wanted to abolish the traditional difference between the civilized and the "primitive" by proving the existence of "simple" cultures in the heart of Europe. This comparative contribution renounced value judgements and hierarchies. Instead, the Museum looked to prove the superiority of the "Germanic race."