Wes Anderson Delves Into Deep Storage
for Vienna Exhibition

Wes Anderson & Juman Malouf at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

© KHM-Museumsverbandcredit
Wes Anderson & Juman Malouf at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
Spitzmaus Mummy in a Coffin and other Treasures ignores traditional curating concepts to show an eclectic mix of the bizarre and beautiful.

Spitzmaus Mummy in a Coffin and other Treasures ignores traditional curating concepts to show an eclectic mix of the bizarre and beautiful.

© KHM-Museumsverband

Many items in the exhibition are grouped by color

“Objects were selected instinctively, without any detailed or scientific understanding of their rarity, provenance or exhibition history.”

Jasper Sharp, Kunsthistorisches Museum curator

A five-thousand-year-old set of Egyptian fayence beads; a pair of nineteenth-century velvet and leather shoes, threaded with gold and part of a Viennese theatre costume; a Qing dynasty porcelain goblin designed to sit on the stairs, and five dead birds—red-necked tanagers from Brazil.

What do these objects have in common? Not much, except that they are all green. And they all feature in the second room of an exhibition at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, curated by the filmmaker Wes Anderson and his partner, the writer and illustrator Juman Malouf.

Spitzmaus Mummy in a Coffin and other Treasures is, fittingly, on show in the Kunstkabinett of this ornate, magnificent museum. With its eclectic mix of art, animals, artifacts and instruments, the exhibition recalls the curiosity cabinets in royal palaces and aristocratic homes that preceded modern museums. Like Anderson’s movies, it is quirky, carnivalesque and darkly humorous with a cast of colorful characters. But unlike the films, it lacks a discernable storyline.

The exhibition is the third installment of a series that began in 2012, in which the Kunsthistorisches Museum invites creative individuals to present their personal selections of objects drawn from the museum’s collections and those of the Weltmuseum (World Museum), the Theatermuseum (Theatre Museum) and the Natural History Museum. Previous editions were curated by Ed Ruscha and the writer and ceramic artist Edmund de Waal.

© KHM-Museumsverband Photo: Rafaela Proell

Wes Anderson & Juman Malouf with the Coffin of a Spitzmaus

So Anderson and Malouf could choose whatever they wanted from this vast treasure trove of more than 4 million objects. More than 350 of the 400 exhibits they selected were in storage. “We gave them carte blanche,” says Jasper Sharp, the Kunsthistorisches Museum curator who worked with Anderson and Malouf. Before they started preparing the exhibition, “the Kunstkammer was their favorite place on earth,” he says. “Now their favorite place on earth is the depot. When things came wheeling out on a trolley, they said ‘here comes the duty-free.’”

The exhibition is stuffed with oddities rarely on show in the galleries of Vienna’s museums: A 16th-century glazed earthenware figure of a naked woman perched improbably on a hedgehog, or bizarre portraits of the hirsute man Petrus Gonsalvus (possibly the inspiration for Beauty and the Beast) and his children, for example. The object from which the exhibition gets its name is a tiny wooden coffin for a shrew from 4th-century-B.C. Egypt. The newest exhibits are three recently-laid emu eggs from an Austrian farm.

One room is filled with portraits of children; another cabinet contains a row of miniatures, ordered by size. A recurring theme is cases and boxes, including a hatbox for the plumed bicorne of a general in the Austrian Imperial Army, a suitcase for a Korean prince’s war-robe, and an Egyptian box for intestines made of painted wood and stucco.

Installation view of Spitzmaus Mummy in a Coffin and other Treasures
© KHM-Museumsverband

Installation view of Spitzmaus Mummy in a Coffin and other Treasures

Installation view of Spitzmaus Mummy in a Coffin and other Treasures
© KHM-Museumsverband

Installation view of Spitzmaus Mummy in a Coffin and other Treasures

Installation view of Spitzmaus Mummy in a Coffin and other Treasures
© KHM-Museumsverband

Installation view of Spitzmaus Mummy in a Coffin and other Treasures

Installation view of Spitzmaus Mummy in a Coffin and other Treasures
© KHM-Museumsverband

Installation view of Spitzmaus Mummy in a Coffin and other Treasures

Installation view of Spitzmaus Mummy in a Coffin and other Treasures
© KHM-Museumsverband

Installation view of Spitzmaus Mummy in a Coffin and other Treasures

Installation view of Spitzmaus Mummy in a Coffin and other Treasures
© KHM-Museumsverband

Installation view of Spitzmaus Mummy in a Coffin and other Treasures

Installation view of Spitzmaus Mummy in a Coffin and other Treasures
© KHM-Museumsverband

Installation view of Spitzmaus Mummy in a Coffin and other Treasures

© KHM-Museumsverband

Installation view of Spitzmaus Mummy in a Coffin and Other Treasures

“Objects were selected instinctively, without any detailed or scientific understanding of their rarity, provenance or exhibition history,” Sharp says. Anderson and Malouf “tapped into the same insatiability and madness that the Habsburgs showed” in building the Vienna collections, he says. It was an undertaking that required thousands of emails between Sharp, Malouf, and Anderson. “Wes is an email maniac,” Sharp says.

For the architects of the exhibition, the selection presented a huge challenge. Vitrines had to be set at differing levels of humidity. One display table has been left empty. The organization of the show has nothing to do with the age or provenance of the objects; one vitrine contains a finger, hand and arm of bronze, all parts of statuettes. The finger is Roman, the hand is from the 16th century, and the arm is modern.

Many encyclopedic museums are looking for ways to reinvent their collections as the traditional model faces challenges in staying relevant. The modern museum, the successor to the Wunderkammer or curiosity cabinet, is a construct of the nineteenth century, a period of burgeoning nationalism and colonialist expansion. Globalization and immigration are a threat to this model, which relies on neat categorization by origin and date. One consequence of that compartmentalization is that items which don’t fit obviously into any category can slumber for decades in the depots.

Spitzmaus Mummy in a Coffin and Other Treasures certainly offers a chance to see some objects long buried in the depths of the museum’s depots, and it ignores all conventional curating concepts. But it doesn’t offer much to replace them. The weird and wonderful exhibits have aesthetic appeal and create an atmosphere, but they lack context. As viewers, we are given the film set, but no script; the props and the characters, but no plot. Malouf told Sharp that the exhibition showed the couple’s life story. But without knowing that narrative, it is a bit meaningless, if intriguing–a story that is hidden, or one still waiting to unfold.

The challenge of the series, Sharp says, is to “try to step into the mind of the person who had made the selection, and to understand the reasoning behind its various decisions.” We could use a little more guidance in this case. Mind-reading is notoriously difficult.

Spitzmaus Mummy in a Coffin and other Treasures is on show until April 28, 2019, at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.

About the Author

Catherine Hickley

Catherine Hickley is a Berlin-based arts journalist and the author of The Munich Art Hoard: Hitler's Dealer and his Secret Legacy (Thames & Hudson, 2015).

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