The Tiroler Volkskunstmuseum (Museum of Tirolean Regional Heritage) in Innsbruck has accumulated a remarkable collection of everyday objects of rural, urban and aristocratic life in former days. Presenting a fascinating romp through Tirolean folk art, the museum holds an astounding variety of objects related to history, people, traditions and culture. It makes you wonder: Why does the museum have all these things? Where did they come from? What were they used for? To uncover some of the most fascinating, intriguing, and rare objects in its collection, we asked museum director Karl Berger to show us his favorite objects.
On our tour of the museum’s rich collections, Karl Berger reveals the surprising stories, complex questions, and awe-inspiring answers hidden inside these strange and curious remnants of the past.
In the 19th century, people used to marry in the winter as this was the season where farms slowed down. Bed, linen and linen chest were important parts of the bride’s dowry to the groom, which were often transported to her new home through the snow on a sled.
The most important item in any bedchamber, both physically and symbolically, was the couple’s bed. This bed has a high headboard ornamented with two paintings, representing the wedding couple. One scene depicts the ideal of marriage life, a happy couple, while the other painting shows the horrifying image of a severe marital dispute. This duality of good and evil had its roots in the baroque era and was widely used in folk culture.
The “Bird of Self-Knowledge” was a popular motif in the Age of Enlightenment: A long-necked crane grew from a man’s forehead, twisted backward, clasped his nose between its beak, and stared into his eyes with fierce yet unknowable certainty. This particularly beautifully worked figure, an intricately carved head post, decorated an upper middle class sleigh—demonstrating the attitude of its owner, as museum director Karl Berger puts it.
The term “ex voto” comes from the Latin “ex voto suscepto” meaning “in pursuance of a vow.” It is used in reference to a painting, a plaque or any object placed in a pilgrimage church or chapel to commemorate a vow or to express thanks for a favour received. This practice, a religious gesture made in the face of death or a simple expression of gratitude to the Divinity, was very common in rural Tirol. Why is this painting so fascinating for Karl Berger? Because back in the 17th century, people were grateful for completely different things than they are today. Pictured to the left is a mother with her new born baby and I assume that she was filled with gratitude for giving birth to a healthy child. Karl Berger reads the explanation to me, telling that the woman gave birth to twins and one of the twins deceased soon after delivery. However, the baby was baptized before his death, and so the family was able to bury their dead child on the graveyard. In Catholic belief, a newly baptized child is considered free of sin, and goes to heaven after he died.
This tiny exhibit tells about the importance and organisation of calendar days 500 years ago. The pages on display show the months of June and July. These days, there were no weekdays and holidays, but so-called “Lostage” (magical day). These magical days were dedicated to saints and the number of them differed each month. The calendar pages on display have four magical days in June and seven in July. These days long past, people would not use single weekdays to talk about time, but instead say “three days before the magical day,” explains the museum director. Patron saints days, such as the ones of Saint James and Saint Magdalene for example, were country-wide ‘bank holidays’. Joseph II, Holy Roman Emperor from 1765 to 1790 and ruler of the Habsburg lands from 1780 to 1790, was a proponent of enlightened absolutism and committed to fight against superstition in rural areas. He sharply cut the number of holy days to be observed in the Empire.
Board games have always been popular entertainments for people. So what games did the Tiroleans like to play? The “Drandl” game can be compared to a primitive form of roulette – a swivelling pin mounted on a board. Spinning the pin in one direction, it eventually loses momentum and once stops in its final resting place, pointing on a motif. Players were supposed to place their bets on any motif before the wheel started dropping. The “Drandl” wheel gained a lot of traction relatively quickly and was a popular game in Tirol in the 19th century, played in guesthouses on holidays and on any other day, so different types of gambling addiction existed as well. Attempts to ban the game were of little success as carpenters elaborately worked the boards into tables where they could easily be hidden. The game reveals much about the attitudes and perspectives that were prevalent at the time. The debts incurred by gamblers were listed on boards, as pictured in the rear.
19th century paintings often depict the Alpine custom of “fensterln”, practiced by young men who paid a nightly window visit to their girl (and, if successful, gained the right of entry through the opened window with the help of a ladder). According to Karl Berger, these romantic paintings have nothing to do with reality. Instead, young men roamed the village in small groups and tried to impress the young girls ready to get married with rhymes or with playing the mouth harp, a lamellophone instrument, which consists of a flexible metal tongue attached to a frame. The tongue is placed in the performer’s mouth and plucked with the finger to produce a note. The men often got involved in fights, especially popular were punch-ups between men from different villages. To defend themselves, they wore knuckledusters, a metal weapon that is worn over the fingers or knuckles and is intended to increase the injuries. Some of them are on display in the museum showcase.
Literally meaning “Krapfen Snatcher”, this stick, which has a kind of pincers attached, was used for snatching “Krapfen”, fried dough sweets. This old Tirolean custom has some similarities to what we call Halloween today, as Karl Berger explains. “All Hallows’ Eve,” which has reference to the day before November 1, All Saints Day on the Catholic calendar, was the night when people believed that the souls of the dead would return from Purgatory and revisit their former homes to perform all sorts of mischief. People truly expected to see them roaming about the countryside. Thus, All Hallows’ Eve was an occasion to placate the alleged evil forces with offerings, so the doors were locked and bread, milk and “Krapfen” were put out on the windowsills. As food was very valuable these days long gone, poor people of lower class snatched the food from the windowsills at nightfall, with the help of Krapfenschnapper. The custom of putting food outside the door that night is still alive in some villages of East Tirol, such as in Kals. This is where kids roam the streets of the village at dusk, collecting sweets with their Krapfenschnapper while saying “Thank you in the name of the Poor Souls in Purgatory”.
A harbinger of industrialization in Tirol, this device, a kind of a basic knitting machine, was used to make stockings. It enabled a modest form of assembly-line production for the very first time and led to the foundation of a number of manufactures all over Tirol. The machine was exclusively operated by men, in this case by “Anton Tschiderer from Oberland”, as inscribed on the device.
Karl Berger tells me that centuries ago, a home’s threshold was considered “sacred” and highly symbolic. One who crossed over a threshold was entitled to the hospitality and protection of those who were within the house while they remained. The door knocker meant that those wanting to enter had to knock three times before crossing the threshold of a home to keep all evil away. There is a rich collection of hand-forged rings on display at the Museum of Tirolean Folk Art. And tradition still has it that we knock such a ring three times — although we don’t always know what it’s supposed to mean.
Tracht is the traditional clothing of Tirol. The word ‘Tracht’ is derived from “tragen” (meaning “to wear”) – so it was the clothing people would wear even in daily matters. The quality of the work was a sign of the riches and social status of the people wearing it. In days long gone, the person who wore traditional dresses, trousers or coats expressed social background—and not the region of origin as it does today. The regulations for this were tight—in the Middle Ages, peasants were not allowed to wear colours or feathers, for example. In the late 19th century and in the early 20th century, legal constraints in apparel design were gradually abolished. Tracht or traditional clothing became fashionable and the classic design with lacing for women fell out of fashion. Young women preferred black traditional costumes as displayed in the showcase — the design seems to be quite contemporary, as if it was conceived by a modern-day fashion designer. It was only at the end of the 19th century that people began to express their region of origin in wearing a distinctive Tracht. At this time, valleys and villages throughout Tirol developed their own styles in enormous diversity of colours, patterns and fabrics.
And although Karl Berger has already presented me his ten favourite objects, he has to show me one of the museum collection’s many parlours – a bonus at the end of our tour, so to speak.
The Museum of Tirolean Folk Art as well houses carefully restored wood-panelled rooms called “Stube” from farms and noble houses from all regions of Tirol, including North Tirol and South Tirol. Today’s living room, the ‘Stube’ (or ‘parlour’) was the part of a traditional farmhouse that was heated by a tiled stove and has changed little in the course of the centuries. It comprises a surrounding bench, tables and space in the middle — where, in the winter for example the spinning wheel stands. Most parlours on display at the museum are from noble houses or castles throughout Tirol. The parlour pictured below comes from Fiss in the Tirol Oberland Region.