Naturhistorisches Museum, Vienna

When abroad I count myself among the museum devouring kind. I try to take as many scalps as possible not only to see art and collections but also to see how museums work and communicate to their audience. Occupational hazard.

A couple of weeks ago I went to Vienna where I managed to tear myself away from all the art that city holds and take a peek at the giant Naturhistorisches Museum. Natural history is not something I know a lot about but it can be fascinating to see the wonders of nature in minerals and animals.

My initial reason to go was the Venus of Willendorf which strangely enough resides here and not in the Kunsthistorisches Museum vis-a-vis the Naturhistorisches, man-made as she is… Anywho… Check Willendorf and then on to the rest of the museum, past the dinos and off it went:

Display after display after display in beautiful old exhibition cases with variations on a theme like young birds or crocodiles:


And when we reached animals of the sea, look, they changed the background of the cases into blue. Blue as the sea…get it?

This museum is old and it seems like it has stayed more or less intact over the years. I am sure they have stuffed a new animal every now and again but the cases and the way their content was displayed betrayed the originality of the place. And while that may be interesting and fascinating in itself I think it is a problematic take on communication in a modern world.

I mean, why show glass models of jellyfish, though wonderful as examples of a craft and a time past, when you can go to the aquarium or see an HD film from the oceans? I adored them but if I wanted to learn something about jellyfish I think I would go for the other options.

Art galleries used to look exactly like that. “More is more” was the dictum of the 19th Century curators, but when we display art like that today it is more as a reflection on models of display and museum history. The Kunsthistorisches Museum across the park is in all respects a twin to the Natural History Museum, except they do not hang all their rooms like this:

Not that the Kunsthistorisches Museum could not learn something new too… But when I think about the vast possibilities of teaching and communicating the wonders of nature the people behind the scenes need to get going – probably dreaming a bit and fundraising a lot first of all. The collections are wonderful and the house is wonderful, but it is a gem of the past. My enjoyment of it was purely aesthetic and my professional gain was purely historic.  And as such I recommend the Naturhistorisches Museum – go have fun looking at all those sea monsters, and minerals, and albatrosses, and precious stones, and what have you! I am sure they even have a piece of Kryptonite if you look long enough.


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2 Responses to Naturhistorisches Museum, Vienna

  1. henry says:

    The Naturhistorisches Museum Wien is amongst the largest of its kind. It has over 30 million exhibits ranging from microscopic specimens, rare fossils to huge dinosaur skeleton.
    The NHM went back to State-of-the-Art over the course of the last ten years: With the investments of vast amounts of money and a lot of dedication, much of the collection was re-vamped and is now presented in a living, modern and child-friendly manner. Some galleries were preserved in their original states and only supplemented with information on famous researchers that have worked for the museum – it is these galleries where you can still experience the patina of the old NHM. However, most of the museum can now be compared to its equivalents. Behind the scenes collections are the essential basis for the work of over 60 staff scientists

  2. anninateatime says:

    Hello Henry,
    I see I have touched a nerve. My experience walking around the museum is not what you describe. All the galleries except two (as far as I recall) had the old interiors. One was a room with sharks in a new case where you could push a button and the shark described would light up inside the case. The other was a room filled with microscopes which I must admit was probably quite up-to-date. However, the massiveness of the old displays was overwhelming and if that is comparable to the museum’s equivalents as you say, then I am sorry to hear it.
    I work in a museum and a very old fashioned one actually, and we too strive to manage the balance between modern world expectations and the patina and “stimmung” of preserving the museum’s soul. And as I wrote I loved the NHM for that – the atmosphere. But as for communication I think it let me down as a non-specialist. The collections may well contain 30 million specimens but in my 1,5 hour there I want to be presented with only the best and most interesting. Tell me one good story instead of trying to make me understand thousands of variations on a stone just by exhibiting them. The numbers are fascinating but only for a certain amount of time before I feel I am suffocating and start to move just a little faster through room after room after room.
    And as to the 60 scientists – well that is impressive! Seems that the Austrian state has a tender spot for science. How wonderful. And I am sure they are doing a marvelous job researching those vast collections. But I am not criticizing the research, I am criticizing the communication. And I could imagine that 60 scientists on one side of the table and a communication department on the other side with probably a little less staff may be an unequal battle mirrored in the exhibitions as they present themselves in the NHM. But what do I know, I am only guessing – and just saying that that is a conflict I know from the Danish museum-scape.

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