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.