The splendour of the Wahnfried Villa, its decline and rebirth

The history of the Wahnfried Villa, which since 1976 has housed the Richard Wagner Museum, is almost as interesting as the life of the great composer, its first owner. The first, and indeed last home in Bayreuth of Richard Wagner, who was born in Leipzig, was built in 1872–74 behind the Hofgarten, the park attached to the palace of the Marquis. Already in Wagner’s lifetime it was considered a place of pilgrimage, and even more so after his death. Cosima Wagner undertook the management of her deceased husband’s estate. It was she who established the still existing structure of the Bayreuth Festival, doing her utmost to promote the cult of her former husband. After the composer’s death the villa took on the function of a museum, though it was also a place of residence, with the number of residents continuously rising. The museum opened on the centenary of the festival, 24 July 1976. As in the time of Wagner, it became the scene of events and concerts. The exhibition could be viewed strictly by a single route, chronologically following the main stages of Wagner’s life, with the history of the Bayreuth Festival relating to that. Temporary exhibitions were housed in the basement, as were the stage designs and models of former performances. Although the permanent exhibition remained the same for decades, technical innovations were introduced and after about 34 years, at the end of the 2010 festival, the institute was closed for renovation with a view to its reopening for the bicentenary of Wagner’s birth, expanded along with the annexes. The new exhibition allowed for more manoeuvre, it could be better comprehended and was more clearly structured. Its internal aspects were simplified. White became the dominant colour, objects were placed in white cabinets, which in atmosphere were more reserved and had a cooler impact than the previous arrangement. However, the logical division of the rooms did not change much. The salon remained as a scene of events, and the library was removed from there. The themes of the rooms, which follow chronologically, present the most important junctures of Wagner’s life, while the history of the festival was transferred to a new building. A new addition were drawers containing hundreds of original letters and manuscripts. Wagner’s library is housed in the basement, as is an item of the most up-to-date exhibition technology, a huge interactive book, whose pages can be turned. Although visitors may miss the development of certain themes, all in all it can be said that the renewal was successful. With its mementos and documents, the rich exhibition fulfils the function of a memorial museum – arguably the main draw for visitors. It is informative about Wagner’s music and about the history of the festival, while at the same time there are opportunities for further development, which sooner or later will surely prove to be necessary.