Laudatio on the occasion of the presentation of the 2023 Museum Award to the Sigmund Freud Museum Vienna

by Robert Pfaller

Held at the Jewish Museum of Hohenems, October 12, 2023


Dear awardees, Dear Director Loewy, Ladies and gentlemen,

„Beware of understandig!“ – exactly 70 years ago, the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan used this brusque but catchy phrase in order to teach his students Sigmund Freud’s basic rule.[1]

This rule says:

  • Never try to complete what the analysand says or shows;
  • Do not paint over the gaps of what is put forward to achieve some plenitude;
  • Do not complete things with unbridled imagination to achieve a supposed integrity.

And these, ladies and gentlemen, are the principles of the redesign of the Sigmund Freud Museum. The rule was followed in a radical and consistent manner.

  • Without pretending something was there that is not,
  • without painting over the gaps, and thus
  • allowing the absence of Freud, his violent displacement, to continue to be perceived, and not to pretend he or his family had only just left the apartment and practice.

“Not to appear to be more than we are”, this is how Monika Pessler, the Director, concisely summarized this attitude. In particular for a museum, which, after all, aims to offer something to its visitors, to show them something, this is an uncommon and courageous decision.

The team at the Sigmund Freud Museum, the researchers, architects, restorers, designers, decided not to compensate for the lack of important exhibits–which for any museum has to be immensely regrettable–by prompting the visitors’ imagination with obvious methods like photos or immersive media like film, sound, video, or virtual reality.

Now, psychoanalysis has taught from its beginnings that even an absence, for instance of words, speaks; that even the supposed lacunae of a dream are not necessarily gaps in its representation, but on the contrary may often be representations of gaps–as Freud for instance once said with regard to a specific dream: of body orifices– and should be acknowledged as such.[2]

By not painting over anything, but, on the contrary, removing earlier illustrations, the Sigmund Freud Museum’s team, frequently surprising us, has achieved to allow the encountered lacunae to be read as representations, and to allow the emptiness and the absence to be felt as an often-touching presence.

 Allow me to illustrate this by three exemplary cases:

For example, the wall of the treatment room, where, as you all know, the famous couch is missing as it is in London today: by removing several layers of paint added over the years from this empty wall, what suddenly reappeared were the holes of the screws that must have fixed the rug to the wall behind Freud’s couch.

With these holes, which may have been drilled by Freud himself in order to hang the rug on the wall, the rug that was meant to protect the analysands from the cold; with these gaps in the wall, which were probably made in 1906, the year when Freud moved his practice from the ground floor to the mezzanine of the building, the father of psychoanalysis becomes strikingly visible–just like the painful and shameful fate he and his new, inconvenient science were subjected to in this very place.

In the redesign of the museum, the walls of Anna Freud’s living quarters were also opened. And what appeared there were the still existing cables of the in-house telephone that connected Anna Freud’s apartment to her partner’s, Dorothy Burlingham’s, who lived on the second floor of the building with her four children from 1929. With this in-house telephone, they were able to warn each other of the Gestapo closing in.

And a third example: the coat rack, which was in the entrance to Freud’s waiting and treatment room. It has been preserved with its original brown wall hangings and hooks. Only a last hook, at the end of the narrow room, has disappeared. Any other museum might have rectified this embarrassing absence by inserting a duplicate, probably admitting this in all honesty by labeling it accordingly.

The Freud Museum’s team, however, have asked themselves why this hook might have been removed. And they found an answer in the adjoining window: there, we can still see the crack in the glass that must have been caused by the pane hitting this last hook of the coat rack.

Now we feel someone must have been there who, in order to avoid further damage to the window, decided to remove the hook. Obviously, we don’t know whether it was Freud himself, or maybe his faithful servant, Paula Fichtl. Or we might imagine something else: maybe what hung on this hook was one of Freud’s famous soft felt hats; and maybe the window was safe from damage until Freud took this hat with him when he had to flee.

Dear ladies and gentlemen, in these examples, which surely could be added to by citing some more, I wanted to show that, in all probability, there is hardly a museum in the world that comes as close to the method of the science it documents in the way it proceeds as the redesigned Sigmund Freud Museum.

Nothing is “understood” there, in the sense of Lacan; nothing is filled in or well-meaningly completed–and this is what makes what we get to see there, and what we don’t get to see, so clear and vivid in such a touching manner.

And this is what I want to thank you for, and, of course, congratulations!


[1] See Jacques Lacan: The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book I: Freud’s Papers on Technique. 1953–1954. New York: W. W. Norton, 1991.

[2] See Sigmund Freud: The Interpretation of Dreams, transl. and ed. by James Strachey, 1955 (1900), pp. 347: “Glosses on a dream, or apparently innocent comments on it, often serve to disguise a portion of what has been dreamt in the subtlest fashion, though in fact betraying it. For instance, a dreamer remarked that at one point ‘the dream had been wiped away’; and the analysis led to an infantile recollection of his listening to someone wiping himself after defaecating. Or here is another example which deserves to be recorded in detail. A young man had a very clear dream […] He dreamt that it was evening and that he was in a hotel at a summer resort. He mistook the number of his room and went into one in which an elderly lady and her two daughters were undressing and going to bed. He proceeded: ‘Here there are some gaps in the dream; there’s something missing. Finally there was a man in the room who tried to throw me out, and I had to have a struggle with him.’ He made vain endeavours to recall the gist and drift of the boyish phantasy to which the dream was evidently alluding; until at last the truth emerged that what he was in search of was already in his possession in his remark about the obscure part of the dream. The ‘gaps’ were the genital apertures of the women who were going to bed; and ‘there’s something missing’ described the principal feature of the female genitalia.”