The Sigmund Freud Museum at Berggasse 19 in Vienna’s 9th district is aptly situated in the building where the doctor lived and worked from 1891 until 1938. During that time, the apartments Freud occupied were witness to the emergence, the struggle, and finally the flourishing of a new discipline known as psychoanalysis. Freud treated his most famous patients in the consulting room on the first floor; he wrote his most important books in the study next door. The Jewish doctor and his family only reluctantly fled the apartment and the city after the Nazi takeover of Austria, the Anschluss, in 1938.

To enter the museum, you climb white stone stairs with elaborate wrought iron railings to the first floor and turn left. There you find stately, wooden double doors, and you press a gold button on a plaque whose inscription reads “Prof. Dr. Freud.” You are buzzed in after a moment, as if you are entering a doctor’s office, as if you are a patient, as if the Freud, whose eyes stare out from the tiers of brochures in the museum’s front room, will tell you in due time what your dreams mean.

This nod to the experiential aspect of making a pilgrimage to a former doctor’s office is evidence of the museum’s “raison d’être.” Although the premise upon which the museum was founded is that the patron saint of psychoanalysis lived and worked here, the museum is about more than the life and times of the doctor himself. As Daniela Finzi, the director of research at the museum told me, “Berggasse 19 is interested in Freud as a cultural phenomenon.” To enter as a patient did, visitors perpetuate the practice of psychoanalysis instead of commemorating the individual.

Freud as a cultural phenomenon is familiar enough. The legitimacy of his scientific findings has been questioned, sometimes convincingly, but that has not stopped the prevalence of his ideas. In an academic setting, any course in the humanities might encounter Freud or one of his many theorist-disciples. And outside of the classroom, those internalities that Freud brought to the fore a century ago are the lens through which we see the world around us, particularly in America. As the Professor of my English class last fall put it, “We cannot have non-Freudian dreams.” His tropes are so embedded in cultural consciousness that even if one did not know his name or the title of any of his works, one would be familiar with the concept of Freudian slips, with paranoia, with narcissism, neuroses tracing back to people’s relationships with their parents—all his. Freud is so present, his ideas such accepted common knowledge, that he has been fragmented into tchotchkes before our eyes, as the gift shop in the museum attests: there are sponges with “neurosis” written on them, erasers that say “repression,” dream books. Louis Menand wrote an article in the New Yorker in 2017 called “Why Freud Survives: He’s been debunked again and again—and yet we still can’t give him up.” He explains, “No one asks of ‘Paradise Lost’: But is it true? Freud and his concepts, now converted into metaphors, joined the legion of the undead.”

Psychoanalysis does not just live on in academic theory or in the fragmented state in which it exists in the gift shop, however. It is also practiced. It is, according to its practitioners, a serious science, a real way of working practicing psychotherapy. The museum works in large part to keep this fact in sight. Freud and his movement are concentrated here. Psychoanalysis is centralized, made relevant, and made legitimate. The museum is, for example, testing out a new media guide accessible through smartphones. It is undergoing extensive renovations which are set to culminate in 2020. One of the temporary exhibitions presents the plans in detail: The museum is literally displaying itself in an active, deliberate iteration of renewal. Most explicitly, the guide reminds every visitor that the former apartments house the largest psychoanalytic library in Europe, open two days of the week, Tuesdays and Wednesdays. On those days, I learned from Ms. Finzi, the glazed glass double doors to the reading room remain open for the express purpose that visitors see into it: those perpetuating psychoanalysis as a science are an exhibit themselves.

What is interesting about the museum, though, is that there is not much here. The vast majority of what was here between 1891 and 1938 now resides at the Freud Museum in London. With the help of his friend and patient Princess Marie Bonaparte, Freud and his family were among the very few Jewish families allowed to leave Nazi-occupied Vienna with their possessions following the Anschluss. The walls of the museum are covered with Edmund Engelman’s 1938 photographs of the apartment pre-departure, in addition to documents and diplomas that tell the story of Sigmund Freud’s life. But there is no couch, very few of Freud’s antiques, none of his Persian rugs, no desk. Instead of Freud’s furniture and most of his famous antique collection, the museum has just a small selection of Freud’s possessions that Anna Freud donated when the museum was founded in 1971. These comprise the museum’s permanent exhibition.

Visitors have reacted since its inception to lack of actual objects in the museum. In Lydia Marinelli’s article called “‘Body Missing’ at Berggasse 19,” published posthumously in English in 2009, she explains this frustration: “The expectation visitors have of such places [namely, former residences] is to find the remains of an authentic-looking interior, preferably one that creates the impression that the poet, philosopher, etc. has just left the room.” A visitor to the residence of the founder of a movement expects to find the space in the same sacred orientation and layout that once was, that witnessed the living of a great life and the production of great works. She continues: “It is precisely this function of reassurance that the Vienna Freud Museum cannot fulfill. The expectation of finding certain traces of an individual, a particular history, is frustrated.” Many today have similar reactions. One recent tripadvisor review begins, “This is example of a fraud packed in a history/culture cover. This is not a museum. This is an empty apartment where Freud lived before he moved to London. When he moved to London he took all his belongings with him. So, there is nothing in this apartments [sic].” And this reviewer is not alone in his sentiment.

The founders in Vienna might have avoided this frustration by creating replicas of Freud’s original possessions and redecorating his apartment to look as it once did. But the founders decided not to do so. They saw the benefit in maintaining and curating an empty museum. What did they see? And why do today’s curators, more than forty-five years later, continue to pursue this difficult and sometimes misunderstood setup?

First, the emptiness of the museum fits snuggly into the paradox that the museum is constantly playing with, the paradox of curating a museum in commemoration and perpetuation of a theory whose entire premise is the existence of an subconscious, inscrutable aspect of the mind (the “id”) as the explanation for human action. Thus, there is obviously an irony in the large, red sign, visible from several blocks away, with “FREUD” written on it, or in the red bags from the gift shop, which read, in block letters: “Don’t forget Freud.” The emptiness of the interior stands in overt contrast to those overt markers of location.

The relationship between this conceptualization of the Freud museum and certain themes in Freud’s thought is striking. In a parallel to Freud’s theory of the mind, the outside is visible, legible, and obvious, while the inside is somewhat bewildering. Freud’s dream theory includes the concepts of manifest and latent dream content. The manifest content of a dream refers to the visible images and the narrative, while the latent content refers to the underlying desire that explains that manifest content. The latent content is discernable only via free association, the act of linking the manifest content with other memories and emotions. It is up to the analyst to analyze the manifest content in order to piece together the latent content of the patient’s dreams.

In light of Freud’s dream theory, the museum’s sparse decoration, its use of images, and especially of Engelman’s photographs, are its “manifest content.” This content encourages a “free association” process, directed by the museum’s guides, through which a visitor, functioning as the “analyst,” must piece together the “latent content” of the former apartment for him or herself.

More so, though, that emptiness responds to the tragedies that took place at Berggasse 19, which are manifold. Most obviously there is the Freud family’s exile, with all of the violence and degradation that caused it and would follow it. The objects that witnessed Freud at work, a man who had been so informed by the Viennese fin-de-siècle culture and had so deeply informed it in return, fled with their owner Westward. And then, following the Freuds’ exile, the Nazis converted the apartment building into a Judenhaus, a collection point for Jewish families awaiting deportation to Auschwitz. Seventy-nine people were sent to their deaths from Berggasse 19. Freud’s relative safety in London in comparison to the fate of his Jewish neighbors and transplanted co-religionists certainly brings the paradox of Freud’s 1933 quip: “What progress we are making,” he wrote to Ernst Jones when Nazis in Berlin began burning his work. “In the middle ages they would have burned me. Now they are content with burning my books.” While Freud himself escaped, the subsequent occupants of his apartment, and his four sisters left behind in Vienna, were, in fact, burned. And what remains of them at Berggasse 19 is even less than what remains of Freud: nothing at all.

All museums by definition sacralize space, particularly museums at homes of patron saints for cults or movements. Probably most tangibly holy of all, though, are spaces vacated, left empty, due to tragic and reluctant exile or death. Tragedy, and especially tragedy by exile or death, is well-memorialized by emptiness. The ghostliness of the bare, creaking floors, once smothered by Persian rugs and the weight of serious conversation, concludes Freud’s biography by giving visceral reality to his flight. The apartment must stay empty to remember what made it empty. Joanne Morra, in an essay called “Seemingly Empty,” explains that the emptiness “highlights, embodies and echoes the Freud family’s departure; a pervasive impression of absence; and an irreducible rupture in history.” The empty apartment exudes the aura of somber authenticity deservedly hallowed.

According to this response, a curator might answer the online reviewer, who wrote that “this is not a museum. This is an empty apartment where Freud lived before he moved to London”: I, too, wish the objects were still here. But this museum (among other things) commemorates a life, and Freud’s life was not just one of treating patients and writing books. Freud did not “move” to London. He fled, and only after his books were burned, after he watched his Jewish neighbors suffer from boycotts; spontaneous outbursts of violence; loss of income due to the desire of various institutions to be “purely Aryan,” after his daughter Anna was taken by the Gestapo for hours of questioning. Freud left reluctantly, looking back over his shoulder, and only because he had to. One might say, moralistically, paternalistically, that it would be wrong, after such a violent break with the city he loved, to visit a perfectly restored apartment.

Do you enjoy reading the Nass?

Please consider donating a small amount to help support independent journalism at Princeton and whitelist our site.