Walking Tour of a Living Exhibition
Commemorating the 100th anniversary of the birth of Dr. Viktor Frankl, the Viktor Frankl Museum in Vienna first opened its doors to the public on the 19th of March 1995. Its was an initiative of the Viktor Frankl Center in Vienna, aiming to preserve the life and legacy of Viktor Frankl, MD, PhD, who lived and worked at this location from 1945 until his death in 1997. “The Art of Living” program of the Austrian Radio Station [ORF] aired on January 10, 2021, produced by Ms. Brigitte Krautgartner, explored the themes that come alive as we enter the doors of this unique exhibition, offering a view into the timeless wisdom and timely message of logotherapy. Ms Maria Harmer accompanies Ms. Elisabeth Gruber, Director of the Viktor Frankl Museum Vienna, who shows us around the exhibition hall and leads us through some of its interactive features (Viktor Frank Museum Vienna, 2021).
The following are reflective notes that summarize the interview:
- From Life and Work to a Museum / From Museum to a Living Exhibition:
Ms. Harmer opened this interview by reminding her listeners that an awareness of meaning in life is most helpful in difficult times since it helps to overcome external difficulties and inner challenges. We can learn a lot from Viktor E. Frankl, the founder of Logotherapy and Existential Analysis, who was of Jewish origin, and “…one of the greatest teachers when it comes to affirming life.”
We know from Frankl’s biography (Frankl, 2000) that during the second world war, he survived several concentration camps. Due to tragic circumstances, he lost his young wife, their unborn child, his mother, father, and brother. From 1945 to 1997 the year of his death, the world-renowned psychiatrist lived in his apartment in Mariannengasse 1, in the IX district of Vienna. His second wife who is now 95 years old still lives there. Part of the apartment has been transformed into a museum.
Because of the coronavirus, the museum was closed for some time, and currently it operates with limited opening hours. Ms. Gruber unlocks the door stating: “When we first came through these doors and decided to set up the museum, we asked ourselves: ‘Viktor Frankl is world renown; If we do not do it, who will? If we do not do it, when will it be done?’ –so, we did it.” This is how the museum came into being.
Ms. Harmer remarks that the words of Rabbi Hillel: “If I do not do it, who will do it? If I do not do it, when shall I do it? And If I do it only for myself, who am I?” –are words Viktor Frankl often quoted. The quote offers a fitting appeal to explore our area of freedom with our possibilities and opportunities. Which one of these, as of yet unfulfilled potentials, depend upon our courage and determination to be fulfilled?
- Scaling the Mountain Cliff:
In the entrance, we are greeted by a large photo of Dr. Frankl scaling a mountain cliff. Ms. Gruber stops to explain the significance of this photo: “This is a very fascinating image because Frankl suffered from fear of heights, but he did not want to let this deter him. So, he said to himself, who is stronger ‘I or me,’ ‘Is it my anxiety or is it me as a person?’ ‘And he said to himself, I will go climbing with my anxiety and despite my anxiety!’” Frankl took the advice that he often gave to his patients: “Do not take every nonsense from yourself” and he prescribed the same medication for himself as he would prescribe to his patients: “Take a bull by its horns” and as you do so, the anxiety will loosen its grip. We are stronger than our emotions and physical reactions. We can do things that we never thought we would dare to do if we see a strong meaning that beckons us. Frankl wanted to live what he preached. As early as in 1928 and 1929 when he first took up maintain climbing (Viktor Frankl Institute Vienna, 2021), we see that he was ready to challenge himself and to “take his own medicine.”
- A Thread Running through the History of our Lives:
The Director of the museum leads us through the museum past historical boards showing how Frankl was first influenced by Freud and then Adler, and he founded the “Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy.” She stops at this point, reflecting on the metaphor of a “thread.” She explains that a thread that runs through our lives connecting us with it. At each step, we can grow beyond ourselves as this rope holds us up. “…And this means that we have a connection with the ultimate Thou—who is concerned about us and watches over us and extends a hand to us so that we can master life’s challenges”—this is the reason why we are invited to say ‘yes’ to life.
Ms. Harmer reminds us that in his book, “Say Yes to Life, a Psychologist Experiences the Concentration Camps” [which was translated as “Man’s Search for Meaning” in English and first published in 1959; Viktor Frankl Institute Vienna, 2021], Viktor Frankl detailed his experiences “…not to elicit sympathy or to complain but to help others gain strength.” This book moved millions of people around the world. Its main thesis, which Viktor Frankl never tired repeating, is that meaning is available in every life situation.
- Every Situation is Unique and Every Moment in Precious:
Continuing the tour, we hear an excerpt from one of Frankl’s presentations [quoting Nietzsche]: “Who has a why in life can bear with nearly any how.” And another excerpt that explains this statement: “This is to say that whoever has a goal and a task, whoever can perceive that there is a mission that only he or she can fulfill, who, in other words, sees meaning in life, is capable of enduring suffering…for the sake of this meaning…for the sake of a loved one.” Ms. Gruber pauses to emphasize that his is one of the main points. And the other is to emphasise how precious each moment is. When we come face to face with death, we become aware of the limitations of life, and our vulnerabilities. That is why we can say “…death is the engine of life.” When we can see that every moment is unique, unrepeatable, and irreplaceable and no moment comes again in life—this is what death brings into awareness—that each moment is precious. As Frankl stated, “…Faced with life’s transitoriness, it is meaningful to act.” If there were no such limitations, each action and decision could be procrastinated indefinitely.
These words remind bring us back to the present. Certainly, these times of the coronavirus pandemic remind us of the unique and unrepeatable moments we live in. On several occasions, it was remarked that this present crisis confronted us with our own vulnerabilities and finiteness.
- “Seeing Through” Means Appreciating the Healthy Core of the Person:
Next, we arrive to a glass case housing the glasses of the psychiatrist. Ms. Gruber explains that “…the glasses for him were the symbol of seeing through.” To see through in a situation would mean that we are aware that the anxiety and stress affects us physically, psychologically, and emotionally. However, what we do not want to miss and what we really want to keep in front of our eyes is that “…wee have a healthy core that is the indestructible part of our being—of every human being.”
This unconditional belief in the meaningfulness of life is what Viktor Frankl wants to call our attention to, explains Ms. Gruber, as she points to several questions illustrated on boards. “What is the point of life?” “What is worth living for?” “Will death destroy all what we achieved?” –These are philosophical questions that philosophers have grappled with for centuries. Through the lenses of a three-dimensional view of the human person, we can see people not only as they are but as they can be. We can appreciate that the core of the person is the spirit, a healthy core, that is inherently dynamic and oriented toward meaning.
- Inherent to human existence is a Will to Meaning:
Above, through the speaker we hear Dr. Frankl repeat the phrase which he repeated innumerable times during his lifetime: “Fundamental to a human being is his or her will to meaning.” Thus, the question of meaning is timeless. For, it is an age-old question that was with humanity since its creation. According to Dr. Frankl, “In the last analysis, a human being can not exist without meaning.” And when he is ill, or close to death, is when the question of meaning is most likely to surface in his or her depth…that is when he is confronted with the question of meaning, for “…people do not question meaning when everything is going well, but when they suffer.” That is the point when they need something desperately to hold on to. “A man who suffers and sinks into hopelessness and despair unless he can decisively hold on to meaning.”
- Reaching to the Infinite:
Ms. Gruber explains that, after 1945, Frankl had not much left in terms of material possessions. Great was the weight of the death of his loved ones. He still held on to the belief that life holds meaning and that is in a unique position to fulfill this meaning. In his Jewish family home, he experienced protection and unconditional trust. Yet, he wanted to reach beyond his Jewish roots to a point that connects us all as human beings and ties us all into one human family. He pointed to something that transcends all denominations and addresses the heights to which we can aspire. “Whenever someone spoke of God, he related it to a notion of ‘God as the most intimate partner of our soliloquies.’” This means that “…whenever we are talking to ourselves in honesty and in solitude, we can say that we are talking with God.”
“His advice is indeed rewarding in our times,” remarked Ms. Harmer, who chose to end this program with melodies of trust and safety from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Missa Brevis in C-Dur, K. 220.
Indeed, the Viktor Frankl Museum Vienna is a living exhibition that invites its visitors to participate in life fully and take up courage to scale every mountain that may lie ahead.
Frankl, V. E. (2000). Recollections. Cambridge, MA: Perseus.
Krautgartner, B. (2020). Viktor Frankl neu gelesen. [Re-reading Viktor Frankl]. Broadcasted 10 January 2021. Retrieved on January 11, 2021 from: https://radiothek.orf.at/oe1/20210110/624571/1610261069190
Viktor Frankl Institute Vienna. Website. Biography. [Retrieved on January 11, 2021 from: https://www.viktorfrankl.org/biography.html
Viktor Frankl Museum Vienna. [Retrieved on January 11, 2021 from: https://www.franklzentrum.org/english/viktor-frankl-museum-vienna.html