In the nearly 50 years that I have been coming to Vienna–and a large part of my time here spent at the Kunsthistorisches Museum at that–I am ashamed to say that I only once entered the Naturhistorisches Museum on the other side of the Platz from the KHM, and even then it was to go into the basement storage areas with a colleague who needed access to its amazing manuscripts. Having tried once to get in on a jam-packed Sunday and giving up, we went again today very early. And here’s our gimmick: we took with us the 1900 Baedeker’s Guide to Vienna that we brought with us. Baedeker’s at that time were just about as comprehensive a guide as anyone could want, describing exactly what was in the cases at the museums, and who painted the frescoes on the ceiling. We wanted to see if the Museum had changed at all.
So we started at Saal I, which in Baedeker’s 1900 was described as Minerology. Guess what? In almost every room on the mezzanine, the layout was the same today as it had been in 1900! Vitrine after vitrine of rocks and minerals collected by 19th-century Austro-Hungarian explorers and scientists from all over the world. Even the signage on the vitrines are the original ones from the 1880s. A few things had been changed–the most valuable pieces, such as Maria Theresa’s jewel bouquet given to her husband Emperor Franz I, have been moved to more secure places, and a few new displays have been added (my favorite is the display against the wall in Saal I that gives samples of all the materials used in building all the buildings along the Ringstrasse, including information about where they came from and who was the manufacturer.)
This is a classic natural history museum, arranged from rocks to fossils to dinosaurs to mammals to early man. As the repository of the discoveries of all those famous Austrian scientists of the 19th and 20th centuries, there are some amazing treasures here, including one of the Museum’s most famous artifacts, the 25,000-year-old Venus of Willendorf. In some kind of attempt to use the collections to appeal to contemporary audiences, the Museum had apparently commissioned Jeff Koons, of all people, to make some art work inspired by the Venus. I didn’t even dignify his response with a photo (I’m not a Koons fan). What was more touching was the display of the Venus itself, in a special room, with other Venus figures–and with a sponsorship supporting research into breast cancer. At the entrance to the room was a reproduction of the Venus that had had a mastectomy! Much more interesting and relevant than Koons.
The real delight to me of such an old-fashioned museum, built in the 1880s, is not only the old-fashioned stuffed and reconstructed animals–such as these wonderful woolly mammoths (baby included!) which must have required a gillion yards of fake fur–but also the details of the building itself.
Baedeker’s 1900 gives elaborate details of all the artists involved in the statues, stucco work, decorative vignettes and all the other ornamentation that makes up such a monumental structure, and takes the painted murals seriously enough to name the artists. But I just was amused to take photos of them.
The lovely cupola above what is today the cafe was all decked out with quite elegant Christmas lights, very tastefully done. As we sat in the cafe, I noticed all the little putti in the lunettes, playfully enmeshed with creatures of the animal world, and in the upper lunettes were more animal heads.Playful and frivolous, like zoo architecture.
But my favorite features are always the sculptural caryatids, usually torsos only and carrying some incomprehensible allegorical element. The room devoted to chemistry had two of the best I’ve seen. This male figure seems to be holding something that looks ever so much like a garden hose, and his female counterpart presents the room with a thermometer.
Finally, no self-respecting natural history museum would be complete with out a statue in honor of that 19th-century polymath extraordinaire, Alexander Humboldt. And sure enough, there he was, among the ”pioneers of natural science,” to quote Baedeker.
We had a thoroughly engrossing time in this old-fashioned place. I like old vitrines in museums! And to find that a 1900 Baedeker’s, that unbelievable resource, can still be used to guide you through the city, is somehow very reassuring.