Relics and Relicts

In 1995 Sylvia Mattl-Wurm curated an exhibition in Wien Museum dedicated to the Cultural Objects of Memory. In the catalogue she published a text Relics and Relicts. It introduces the genesis of a specific role of the museums, which we find immensely valuable for our research. Here are the notes taken while reading the text.


The Vienna municipal museum keeps 3 types of memorabilia:

  1. the remnants of the body (hair, teeth…),
  2. working tools (palettes, instruments, pens, costumes…),
  3. everyday objects used in the household (furniture, snuff boxes, toothpicks, tram tickets…).

These objects are systematised according to their owners (attribution) and their statuses within the history of the city. Most of them relate to artists (painters, sculptors, writers, dancers, actors, musicians…), only a few belonged to the politicians or scientists.

Auratic objects

A curator experiences mixed feelings when handling such objects: curiosity + repulsion. One has to prevent infections (rust, dust, fungi…). These feelings are overcome by sympathy + humbleness as soon as the curator learns to whom they belonged to. A banal everyday object gets a new dimension, it becomes the bearer of a specific story; it obtains the aura (-> Walter BENJAMIN).
This is the power we bestow to and acknowledge in the objects. The objects return the gaze.


The remains of the saints (since the 4th century AD); the Christian cult of relics.
The objects that connect people with gods, heroes or important events from the past are present in almost all cultures and religions in the world. (-> Sigmund FREUD: Totem und Tabu)

The origins of the museum can be found in the community’s need to prevent itself from potential dangers – e.g. to keep at bay the dead: the relic guarantees that the deceased person will not return.

The cult reaches its first peak in the 7th/8th century (after the fall of the law which protected the opening of graves). The increased demand led to the production of fakes or splitting the existing relics in smaller particles.

The  reliquaries develop in the middle ages as a special way of preserving & presenting the relics at the same time.

The enlightenment destroyed this cult although it did reach the last peak in the 19th century with the worship of the Virgin Mary (appearances, pilgrimage, commercial religious souvenirs), which may also reflect the common fear of loosing the last remnants of the past existence (through industrialisation, modernisation). Devotion and superstition walked hand in hand.

Modern relics

[See Stefan Zweig’s description of theatremania (in German and Slovenian).]
In the 19th century the urban society switched to the modern, profane relics. The artists became the embodiment of the human grandeur. People followed their struggles, sorrows, triumphs… and treated them as gods and goddesses of the earthly heaven (-> Ernst GOMBRICH: Die Krise der Kulturgeschichte). People were excited by the hope that the ideals can be fulfilled through an elevated reality (via the artists).

A museum became a new place for these relics (this is also how such objects were called in the early inventory books).
A museum = “a depot for the immortal“.

At the turn of the century (19/20) the escape from death became epidemic, the insurance companies boosted, the religious needs spread from the worshipping of the artists also to their graves, birth & death houses, objects in the museums

The cult of genius emerged (death masks, medallions with the deceased hair, the painted portraits of the artist on the death bed…). Beethoven’s and Shubert’s bodies were exhumed and transferred to a metal coffin (thus preserving the body), on this occasion a closed circle of worshippers (Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde) took the opportunity to collect more relics. The lack of Mozart’s physical remnants remains a cause of frustration.

The cult of profane relics originates in the 1820s but most of the object entered the museums almost 100 years later.  The procedures to confirm the authenticity are as rigorous as in the case of Christian relics (certificates, proofs).

The museums were overwhelmed with the offers of the legacy by important citizens themselves (presented in the form of meticulous lists with conditions). They were hoping for a posthumous set-up of their immortality, to survive through their own work, their relicts. The modern society feared that death renders lives meaningless

The new phenomenon was criticised both by the Church and the scientists (superstition + fetishism)!

After 1945 the Wien Museum received almost no personal objects, most probably also because the society strived to abandon any cult of personality (Hitler). It did, however, fill in the gaps in the collection and concentrated mainly on the turn of the century.

Contemporary pilgrimage

In the recent years the authentic memorial places (birth-rooms, homes…) became popular pilgrimage places for international tourists. One of the reasons may be that they present static and stable targets in the otherwise chaotic cities.

The genius loci (spirit of place) was rediscovered in the 19th century and many worshipping places were established: Stratford-upon-Avon, Bayreuth, Weimar, d’Annunzio’s Vittoriale by the Garda lake… The Sir John Sloane Museum in London, for example, represents a new way of artists’ worship, similar to the worship of the saints in the Middle Ages.


The collections of memorabilia can be seen also as a continuation of the treasuries and cabinets of curiosity. The interest for these declined from the mid 18th century and turned towards the ethnological or natural science collections.

The private bourgeois collections of personal and family objects were established out of a patriotic attitude and can be seen as a variation of the idea of Kunstkammer. 

The taste shifted from the exotic, unusual and distant to the regular, everyday, local. This caused a change of the classification criteria and the exhibitions – the age of museums began.

The museums fuel the mobility of people in the same way as the worship of the relics mobilised people to travel for months to visit the shrines. Gombrich argues that this role has been taken over by the art museums. They are also a subject of universal, undisputed  worship (unlike the churches). The new cult is rooted in the old (sacral) one, which was incapable to integrate the society.  The nation became the subject and the object of this cult.

The museums enable an homage, a self-appreciation, the society’s past is celebrated, the individuals and their deeds are seen as a contribution to the common welfare.

No doubt, the museums connect us with death, with the absent. The time that was once wrapped around the object is absent as well, through the conservation the function of these objects was also taken away…

The museums as the places of remembering enable us to perform a rite of collective mourning (consciously or not).

Memorabilia market

The pop culture objects are sold at auctions. The high price is a guarantee that the life-style of our times will be remembered, there’s a general understanding that these items belong in a museum as well. Today, as in the past, the museum is perceived as a guarantee for immortality. 

These highly priced objects are purchased by a new financial aristocracy and are often lost for the museums.


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