Naturhistorisches Museum Wien – Part 1


There’s many natural history museums in this world. Not many of them look like this:

Granted, this isn’t the museum we’re talking about, although it does indeed look similar. The above image is of the nearly identical Kunsthistorisches Museum across the square.

Cross the square, to the other side of the bombastic monument to Empress Maria Theresia. Here is the real subject of today’s excursion:

That’s right, we’re in Vienna today and we’re going to see the famous Naturhistorisches Museum. Vienna is a city blessed, or maybe cursed, with more dazzling palaces than any European city would reasonably know what to do with. A literal embarrassment of riches. Enter the building, climb the marble staircase, marvel at the paintings that adorn the main hall, the impressive baroque architecture of the nineteenth-century building itself, the stern looking statues and the many, many scrumptious ornaments and details and it’s hard not to be impressed. And that’s before we’ve even seen the collection.

Like its arty twin across the road, the NHM exists in its current form since 1889, but the history of the institution goes back much further. In 1750 Emperor Franz I, Maria Theresia’s husband, aquired the collection of Jean de Baillou, at the time the largest collection of natural history objects in the world, laying the foundations for what we see today. A featured painting by Franz Messmer in the main staircase hall depicts a fictionalized version of this transaction.

The museum experience is divided into a lower level and an upper level. The lower level halls take you on a journey through time, from the geological beginnings of the Earth through the fossil record of the phanerozoic eon up to archaeological finds associated with the earliest humans. The upper level, meanwhile, is a journey through the animal kingdom as it can be found today. It is on the upper level that we started our tour.

In true 19th century fashion, the tour takes us from the “lower” to the “higher” forms of life, beginning with single-celled organisms and moving via insects, fish, reptiles and birds up to the noble and mighty mammals, ending, of course, with primates. Real old-fashioned march of progress stuff. The implication is that the more like a human something is, the better it must be. Stands to reason. Of all the fossils found in the building, this hierarchical view of the world might be the most antiquated of all. Nevertheless, we might as well have some sort of organizing principle for our nature museum, and this isn’t the würst (especially compared to my home museum of Naturalis, which seems to have no organizing principle at all). If there is a value to preserving the history of the natural world, maybe there is also a value to preserving the history of the science of natural history itself.

The Ernst Haeckel-saal shows not only the microcosmos itself but mostly our own uneasy relationship to it. All kinds of horrible microbial diseases, from malaria to rabies, are described and depicted with a certain degree of relish. Admittedly, it’s an effective way to remind your visitors to wash their hands.

Later on, we observe a multitude of beautifully-made glass models of jellyfish. I loved these. I also had the privilege of seeing live jellyfish on multiple occasions during my week in Vienna, and I feel our knowledge of these fascinating creatures has come a long way even in my lifetime.

The insect hall was the first real highlight. Not only was there a great variety of specimens (you won’t believe how many kinds of insects there are, and how many of them will fit into a single cabinet) but the hall was made more immersive by large, cool model insects and lively dioramas full of things to discover. None of this compromised the unique atmosphere of being in this impressive baroque building.

Larger than life stag beetles.

The fish hall was also great, with this famous coelacanth specimen its most striking object. Something about the preservation process has drained all the colour from its scales. I’m not a huge fan of the term “living fossil” – there really is no such thing – but the text on the signage uses it all the time. The Vienna NHM isn’t here to challenge tradition; it is tradition. In many ways, this is the museum that other museums have moved on from. Nevertheless, I’m still happy for it to exist in its own traditional shape, if only to remember just what the traditions are that we need to move on from. In that way, the Vienna NHM is itself a living fossil. I hope I’m making sense.

Every hall has its own little flavour. Some halls are more model-heavy, others are more orientated towards immersive dioramas, others focus more on skeletons or taxidermy. The snake hall was among the more traditional ones, with wooden cabinets and specimens in formaldehyde. The halls themselves continue to be stunning and even slightly overwhelming in their high degree of ornamentation. It’s easy to miss the trees for the forest in this place.

I’m not a huge fan of pickled specimens in jars of toxic liquid, but it works reasonably well for snakes. Especially when they have a gag where it seems one of them is crawling out. Still, I was mildly disturbed when I came upon a preparate of a dead hognose snake, an animal I keep for a pet! The sight of the very image of our beloved Sliertje all flattened and behind the warping bowed glass of a pickle jar will not leave me in a hurry.

I don’t ascribe to the March of Progress. If any animal is truly the crown upon all creation, why would it not be the mighty Abu Markub? I have yet to see one of these for real. Does Pari Daiza have them?

Hey look, I found some palaeoart!

Can’t make out the name of the painter. The illustration is highly indebted to Charles Knight, who depicted moas numerous times.

Highly dimporphic eclectus parrots.

By the time we reached the mammals, we were already feeling our legs. Here is a desman, a wonderfully bizarre kind of aquatic mole. This is a highly obscure animal that I’d like to know more about, but you’ll struggle to find good pictures of these on the internet. This old piece of taxidermy will have to do.

There is this to say for organizing your museum as a March of Progress: you save the biggest animals for last.

Of course, no natural history museum is complete without a good old whale skeleton. This fin whale has its baleens intact, which is a nice detail that is often missing. A fin whale is big enough, but behind it is a modern mural of a blue whale, which seems to be damn nearly twice the size.

Five species of extant and nearly-extinct rhinoceros. The javan rhino in the foreground is one of the oldest specimens in the collection, hence the glass. This species seems, sadly, to be on its last legs.

An elephant seal bull is not much smaller than an elephant.

One big issue we were running into at this point, and something that we kept dealing with throughout our week in Vienna in August, was that it gets hot in there. No ventilation, no way for the heat to leave. There’s something to grumble here about climate change, the effects of which are so keenly seen at natural history museums anyway, but I don’t have much of substance to add to that subject.

This concludes our tour through the upper level of the wonderful and big museum. It’s one of the best places to go if you want to see basically the entire animal kingdom, organized in a way that may be antiquated but still makes sense. The collection of taxidermy is second to none and it’s hard to argue that it’s housed in one of the most impressive buildings you can imagine.

“But Niels” I hear you think, “I thought this was a dinosaur blog?”

Yes. I’m afraid I’m going to keep you waiting a bit longer. Vienna is the kind of place worth taking your time for. Next time, we will explore the lower floor of the museum and find, finally, some dinosaurs for them to sink their teeth into us, as well as many other expressions of prehistoric life. So make like a guitar and stay tuned!

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  • Reply
    September 1, 2022 at 3:04 pm

    I see your point, Niels, about the traditional concept of “The March of Progress”. (Which, although the idea is ancient, the term itself isn’t very old.) But how would YOU organize the exhibits to get your viewers from Point A to Point B (and the Exit)? (Realize that you don’t want the crowd to double back to the people coming IN- the building’s not designed for that.) It seems to me that starting from simplest and continuing to most complex works just fine on a practical level and also serves the basic idea of evolution without remodeling the place too much.
    It doesn’t seem that these older places, especially in Europe, have a lot of space to devote to huge airy viewing halls with all their vacant space for school groups en masse to pose for selfies in front of the articulated whatever they spent 10 years of their budget on.

  • Reply
    September 8, 2022 at 2:36 am

    I second your admiration of shoebills, admittedly not a rare opinion to have. I feel for you not having seen any alive though. Regarding your question, Pari Daiza likely still has shoebills but it has been many a year since I saw them there. I feel lucky enough to have also seen live shoebills in Walsrode and in Prague Zoo (where they had a beautiful, fitting vegetation-choked and watery exhibit).
    Should you not have them yet, I really recommend the Artis Dierenencyclopedie parts 1-6 (Artis Animal Encyclopedia for you non-Dutch speakers) that were published between 1969-1971 and which had articles for just about every species of animal exhibited in Artis in, I believe, the twentieth century up to the publication date for the encyclopedia. These books are filled to the brim with anecdotes about all these animals and their behaviour and life in the zoo. It also includes a lovely lemma on shoebills that has a brief discussion on the damage those huge beaks can actually inflict on conspecifics as well as on zookeepers whenever these birds decide not to be as stoic as they normally appear to be.

  • Reply
    T.K. Sivgin
    September 9, 2022 at 8:33 am

    I had similar feelings about the preservation of the history of natural history itself when I recently visited the Sauriermuseum Aathal again and one section perfectly preserved how the museum was in the 90s. It was of course outdated, but it perfectly preserved all that 90s Dinomania and I wouldn’t want that to change.

  • Reply
    September 25, 2022 at 4:10 pm

    One aspect of the retention of the old-style exhibits is that the museum can be used as a set for late 19th/early 20th Century TV shows and movies. Indeed, the British-Austrian mystery series Vienna Blood, set in the early 1900s, has a major character who is a scientist at Naturhistorisches Museum Wien.

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