We The Humanities: Interview with Matti Bunzl, Vienna Museum

This week you can find me over at @wethehumanities, a rotating Twitter account where people working in the humanities get to share ideas, experiences, and stories. I’m using my week to talk about the grey areas between fact and fiction, dream and experience, stories and everyday life – as well as people who cross back and forth over the walls of universities and academic institutions.

One such person is Matti Bunzl, a personal hero of mine. Back when I was a postgraduate studying Austrian identity and refugees from the Nazis, Bunzl was an brave and innovative Chicago-based anthropologist whose careful, critical works captured the ways in which Austria had manipulated the representation of its past.

Today, Bunzl is director of the Wien Museum in Vienna: a triumphant step in his ongoing adventures in history and anthropology. He agreed to answer a few questions for my @wethehumanities session.

You’re an anthropologist turned museum director. How do you reconcile researching a cultural landscape with taking on a powerful role which shapes that landscape?

The way I see it is that the former a kind of theoretical anthropology, while the latter is its practical variant. And as Marx said in his 11th thesis on Feuerbach, “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” The same goes for anthropologists…

What is your take on the notion of scholarly distance? 

Total objective distance is bound to be an illusion. And the attempt to achieve it only produces an epistemological straightjacket. My approach is therefore utterly pragmatic. We need to get on with our work, mindful of our positionalities but not trapped by them.

While you were a professor in the US, you also directed the Chicago Humanities Festival – how did that come to pass, what were the challenges, and what have you learned from it?

I had been organizing events on the campus of the University of Illinois since I started there as a professor in 1998. This led to various administrative posts on campus, which, in turn, brought some attention from folks in Chicago. At the end of 2009, I was asked if I was interested in serving as Artistic Director of the Chicago Humanities Festival, and I did so from 2010 until 2014 (organizing five iterations). The main challenge (and joy) of the festival is to bring top-level academic knowledge and artistic production to a larger public in an engaging and accessible manner. In doing so, I learned how to be an arts administrator, including the central tools of marketing and fundraising.

In appointing you as director of the city museum, Vienna has chosen a gay Jewish man as the steward of the city’s heritage – a brilliant thing. What has changed in Austria that this is now possible?

Austria no longer defines its core, national identity in opposition to Jews and gays. Therefore, these groups no longer serve as constitutive outsides. Other groups, though, are being mobilized in this fashion (Africans, Muslims, etc.). The progressive struggle is against those developments.

What does the term “humanities” mean to you?

The humanities is the production of knowledge on any creative aspect of the human intellect.

Thanks to Matti Bunzl for taking the time to answer these questions. Visit theWien Museum online to find out more.

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