Episode 305 – What To Do When You Have TONS of Money & Stuff: Build A Museum!

We’re in the land of the Hapsburg dynasty, which was in power from 1273-1918, at its most powerful ruling over lands which are now Austria, Hungary, Slovenia, northeastern Italy (including Milan, Mantua, Naples, Sardinia, Sicily, Parma, Venetia), southwestern Germany (including portions of Bavaria), Croatia, the Czech Republic, Serbia, Romania, and the Kraków area of Poland. Between 1438-1740, and 1745-1806, members of the Hapsburg family were also Holy Roman Emperor. (The tiny little 4 year gap represents Charles VII, of the Bavarian Wittelsbach Dynasty.) That dynastic history helps to explain how massive the Hapsburg edifices are, how ornate the decoration, and how numerous the palaces.

There have always been people who have more monetary wealth than the rest of us can possibly imagine. Once it was pharaohs, caesars, emperors, shahs, and kings. Then it was industrialists, railroad tycoons, and natural resource developers (plunderers?) – the self styled “barons” of industry and commerce. Now it’s as likely to be a sports or media mega-celebrity as an entrepreneur or businessperson.

Often that wealth comes with power, and as we know from Spiderman comics “with great power comes great responsibility”. (If you’re really curious, look up that maxim – it may have originated as early as the first century BC when referring to the Sword of Damocles.)

A couple of Hapsburg maxims carved into the front of the Natural History Museum.
Top: Exploration Unveils Nature. Bottom: Inspiration is based on Mathematics.

So … how to use all that money (power being a whole other topic too deep for our travel blog)…

Philanthropy is nothing new. Neither is the desire to amass vast quantities of “stuff” to show the world just how much wealth you have.

In the Victorian/Gilded Age in North America, the very wealthy endowed university chairs, hospital wings, concert halls, and libraries (think Carnegie Hall and the wide network of Carnegie-sponsored libraries all over the U.S. and Canada, including the original library in Collingwood Ontario!)

In current times, they’re equally likely to put their name on a stadium or buy a professional sports franchise as start a charitable foundation. Money also makes exotic exploration and scientific discovery possible. Think Elon Musk and his SpaceX program.

Much of what we’re seeing here in Vienna is the confluence of philanthropy, funding expeditions, and just plain showing off. The result is theatres and concert halls built to showcase the works of writers and composers who benefited from crown patronage; vast tracts of “royal” land turned into public parks; and truly gigantic collections of art, jewelry, religious icons, literature, and natural wonders displayed in buildings purpose-built as museums and libraries.

What a long-winded prologue to the fact that today we visited the Naturhistorisches Museum Wien (Natural History Museum of Vienna)

The mirror image museums across from the Hofburg. Top: the Kunsthistorisches Museum. Bottom: the Naturhistorisches Museum.

The oldest curated “collections” (the individual items, especially those related to geology, are often millenia older) in the Natural History Museum date to 1750, when Emperor Franz I Stephan bought the entire collection of 30,000 natural history objects belonging to Florentine scholar Jean de Baillou. At the time, it was the world’s largest such collection. (The current collection is comprised of over 3 MILLION objects, and is actively being worked on by 60 scientists.)

Detail from the museum exterior, with symbols meant to evoke the continents from which most of the exhibits within derived. (Remember that the familiar-looking Liberty figure was created in France and based on the Roman goddess of freedom)

After the emperor’s death, his widow Empress Maria Theresa donated the entire collection to the state and opened it to the public. It is her statue that presides over the square between the mirror-image Natural History Museum and Art and Antiquities Museum (Kunsthistorisches Museum), and her name given to the square: Maria-Theresian-Platz.

Zoom in on the back of the Empress’ throne. The detail is striking.

The current museum building was commissioned by Emperor Franz Josef I (6 rulers after the original collector, by which time the collection had grown large enough to need its own “palace”) and completed in 1881.

The inscription over the exterior entry reads (in German of course) “To the realm of nature and its exploration”.
The soaring entrance hall , featuring a patterned marble floor, sweeping marble staircase, and statues of famous naturalists and explorers (like Humboldt, on the right).

The 100 m² (1076 sq ft) ceiling painting by Hans Canon above the grand staircase is called “The Cycle of Life”, in keeping with the museum’s theme of an evolving planet.

The first 5 exhibit halls display the building blocks of the earth itself: rocks and minerals arranged in the order in which they would have been created during the earth’s formation, ending with some of the “younger” precious and semiprecious stones, and pieces of meteorites which have hit the earth in its most recent 2000 years. In addition to being arranged in geological age groupings, the rocks are grouped by their chemical composition and, within each of those, arranged by country of origin/discovery. It’s a delight!

There are 39 display halls with a total area of 8,700 m² (93,646 sq ft !!), spread over 2 floors. It was everything that I remember loving about Toronto Canada’s Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) when I was a child, combined with everything my adult OCD tendencies value: stunning exhibits of exotic items housed in beautiful rooms … arranged in painstakingly logical order.

Top left: typical layout of the mineral rooms, complete with dark carved wood and glass display cases, and artwork chosen or commissioned specifically to complement the exhibits by depicting specific countries, time periods, or events. Top right: some of the more colourful geodes. Bottom left: a 100 kg (2200 lb) piece of Rock Salt from the Wieliczka salt mine in Kraków Poland, a gift of the Imperial Royal Finance Ministry in 1900. Bottom right: more architectural decoration from the exhibit rooms.

Halls 6 through 9 contain fossils, arranged from oldest to newest in geological age groupings.

A few of the fossil display cases, plus detail of a few I just really liked. I was surprised at how many large fossils came from within Austria’s Alpine basin.
The transition from the fossil rooms to the dinosaur area, featuring a reconstruction from fossil remnants of a “Terror Bird” from South America.

Hall 10 contains magnificent dinosaur skeletons, as well as an audio animatronic reconstruction! This is a museum that has maintained its historic heritage AND moved into the 21st century (there is also a digital planetarium and an interactive “lab” area on the upper floor that includes a research laboratory and an 11 metre long LED display wall).

Halls 11 through 13 contain artifacts from “pre-history”: the Ice Age, Stone Age, Bronze Age, and Iron Age .

Top: an Ice Age woolly mammoth recreated from skeletal remains.
Bottom left: cases full of Bronze Age artifacts.
Bottom right: an iron age ceremonial carriage reconstructed from pieces unearthed in what is now the Czech Republic. The wooden wheels have iron “tires” wrapped onto them.

Halls 14 to 16, the last of the permanent exhibit halls on the mezzanine, are dedicated to anthropology, with exhibits, skeletons, and recreations showing the evolution of humans. It was interesting to be reminded that Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens overlapped for tens of thousands of years, and to consider what that might mean.

Sign from the anthropology hall.

Thinking about when the museum was built, and the long history of Hapsburgs as Holy Roman Emperors, I found their obvious fascination with evolution and science both surprising and refreshing.

After quickly perusing the curated Brasilian exhibit in Halls 17-19 (items pulled from the permanent collection and grouped together for the 200th anniversary of their initial donation to the museum) we needed a refreshment break, so it was out into the grand staircase and up to the Café located in the impressively ornate Dome Hall.

Top: looking up at the dome from the entry level of the museum.
Centre: the dome viewed from the entry to the café.
Bottom: the dome viewed looking up from inside the café.
Although there were coffees, cakes, and pastries on offer, we chose an Alsatian Flammkuchen (a crispy flatbread with creme fraiche cheese, bacon, and “sweated” onions) accompanied by a made-in-house minted lemonade and a white wine spritz.

After our break it was on to the first floor (second floor in North American terms) to visit the remaining 19 halls, which showcase all of the non-human life on earth. Again, the exhibits are arranged in evolutionary order, beginning with microscopic life in Hall 21, through sea creatures, mollusks, arthropods and insects, sharks, fish, amphibians, birds, and mammals, ending with primates.

Top left: 18th and 19th century microscopes, used in making some of the earliest discoveries about microscopic life. Top right: life in the coral reefs. Bottom left: “Molluscs and Mussels”. Bottom right: more beautiful display cases featuring life that developed in the seas.
Beetles displayed looking like jewels.
The shark room, which also highlighted the rate at which sharks are being killed by humans. A large sign read (in German, and I didn’t get Ted to take a photo of it, so I’m paraphrasing): 100 Million Sharks Killed Each Year. 100 Million Years of Successful Adaptation and Evolution Negated by Humankind. The deep blue light in the room gave it a truly underwater feel. Bottom right: sharks and other fish displayed “preserved” in 19th century glass.
Reptiles and amphibians, again with many displayed in their original 19th century containers. the huge snake skeletons looked almost like part of the hall’s ornate decoration.
Crocodiles and terrapins. Again, beyond the splendid displays themselves , note the setting in which they are displayed, and imagine these rooms full of turn-of-the-20th century patrons marvelling at animals from all over the world that they would never otherwise be able to see.

The Vienna Museum continues to accept rare animals not already in its collection that have died of natural causes (or been confiscated from illegal hunters) and as recently as 2012 museum taxidermists have won international competitions for their work on several bird species. They have modernized many exhibits with up-to-date information about endangered species, and the impact of both human actions and climate change on ecosystems. At the same time, they have also chosen to maintain, and explain, many of the 19th century display methods.

Top left: the ceiling painting and wall decoration in the bird rooms reflects bird themes. Top right: some of the larger avian specimens: ostriches, emus, and moas. Bottom left: one of the specimens that won an award for the taxidermist who preserved it. Bottom right: “stepped” displays original to the 1880’s tradition.

I’m not sure if the ROM still exhibits any of its collection of taxidermied animals, preserved sea life, and pinned butterflies (many of them were not on display the last time I visited) because the way some of those things were originally collected is considered cruel by today’s standards, but as a child they were my favourite part of the museum. Seeing those (dead) animals up close made me curious to learn more about them, and to see the places they came from for myself. The feeling of wonder engendered all those years ago was just as strong today.

Standing in the jaw bone of a fin whale. The skeleton of a fin whale (bottom left) shows its baleen. Bottom right: some of the mammals we think of as huge, but who are dwarfed by comparison to the whales.
An exhibit highlighting the skeleton hidden within these magnificent mammals.
None of these magnificent animals are recent acquisitions. Most date to the 1800s. As for the ethics of displaying them in all their glory, would it be better to hide them away?
The bison case shown from 2 angles. The habitat inside, and the cabinetry outside, are fittingly majestic for the animal displayed within.
I thought the polar bear looked somewhat perturbed at being considered “less evolved” than the primates.

After several hours of exhibits, and still no dessert, we left the Natural History Museum and strolled to one of my favourite streets in the inner city: Kärntner Strasse, a pedestrian shopping street filled with wonderful stores and restaurants housed in stunning buildings, where there always seem to be talented musicians busking, and delicious cafés beckoning.

We returned to a café/bakery we enjoyed on our last visit: KuK Hofzuckerbäcker (Kaffee und Kuchen Court Confectioner) L. Heiner (est. 1840), who have tables both outside under umbrellas and (my favourite) on the upper floor overlooking the street. Despite an incredibly tempting array of cakes available, Ted ordered a Mocca Amadeus (strong coffee with orange liqueur and lots of whipped cream), and I settled for “only” an Eiskaffee (coffee with two scoops of vanilla ice cream, topped with whipped cream, shaved chocolate, and a Pirouline-style biscuit. We didn’t want too big an afternoon snack, since we would be meeting our landlord and his friend for dinner in just a few hours.

Our coffee break left us just enough time to walk to Stephansplatz, the square around Stephansdom (St. Stephen’s Cathedral), and peek briefly into the church before heading for the Underground. I’ll share Ted’s photos after we take the guided tour and ascend both the church towers – on a less hot day when we have sufficient energy for the 343 steps in the South Tower (the North Tower has a lift).

Dinner was at a lovely little courtyard restaurant called Mill, that is a favourite of our landlord Harald. We definitely would not have discovered this little gem and its delicious Wiener Schnitzel on our own (Danke, Harald!). I would also not have enjoyed their terrific cold dilled cucumber soup without his friend’s recommendation. Danke, Heidi!

Another lovely day in Vienna, which reinforced that despite really enjoying looking at other people’s “stuff”, we don’t regret having divested ourselves of all of ours.

I don’t need to own the Hapsburg’s whimsical bronze elephant in order to get a great deal of enjoyment from seeing it.

8 comments

  1. A great read! Been to Vienna a few times and never thought of the museum. I will keep that in mind if we ever go back. Love all the pictures and your descriptions! Pretty dress too! Enjoying your articles!! Thanks for sharing!!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Awesome day! We enjoyed the Vienna Museum as much as you did, when we went there in 2016 during our Danube Viking Cruise. It is an amazing place. Hope your continued adventures are equally amazing. Have fun! Ray and DIane, Sturgeon Bay WI & Seabrook TX

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for giving us a good idea. We’re back on a Viking cruise in November…. maybe we’ll do the art museum opposite (we won’t need the included tour after all!)

      Like

  3. The animals, as you know, would have been one of my favourite areas too. Recognizing the many human thought processes in this regard, has not swayed me over the years. Better to learn from what we can see: the good and the bad, the repulsive and the wonderful.

    What a delightful day! You had me at the cucumber soup!
    B.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. My mind went into cartoon mode. I pictured your head swivelling round and round as you admire all the wondrous things you’re seeing! Again … love your research, history and everything! THANK YOU !!! Xxxxxxxxxxxxxx

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    Liked by 1 person

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