The Cabinet of Natural Wonders – Graz & Wien part 4

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I have now visited it twice, the Naturhistorisches Museum in Vienna, and I’m still not done with it. I have seen the most of the first floor twice and on both times it has been equally exiting. Maybe next time I will make it to the exhibitions of the second floor.

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Go in as soon as it opens. Trust me, you’ll need the whole day.

The tour begins with minerals, rocks and fossils and since it is an imperial collection, there are hordes of those. Last time my hubby said he would not be interested in the mineral collection. Yeah, right… We ended up going through every single display. There are the traditional mineral samples, cabinet after a cabinet, room after a room:

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Green stuff. I can tell where it came from (it reads in the labels) but I have no idea what it is.

While they might seem boring and a bit intimidating at first glance, give them a chance and look carefully. They are quite beautiful and intriguing. Like this miniature ice berg:

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A chunk of Aragonite.

But since it is an IMPERIAL collection, it’s not just exhaustive (after a few hours, quite literally), it is also breathtaking size-wise. For a scientific collection it would be enough to have a comprehensive collection of illustrative samples but an imperial collection is a collection of curiosities. It’s not enough to have all the samples – a bit like having all the Pokémons – you need to have the most impressive samples you can get and there is nothing more impressive than something huge:

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A rock crystal. There is a larger one but it’s so huge it doesn’t photograph well.

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A topaz. Merely 117 kg. For a ring, maybe?

Then there are the gold nuggets with one, the goldenklumpen “Welcome”, weighing precisely 68,98 kg. One needs to be exact with these things. It is a natural history museum after all. Which also means that it’s not just all samples and impressiveness. One of the really interesting displays is the one built in old wall cabinets explaining the etymology and the logic of the naming stuff. Why there is rubintyrann, the vermilion flycatcher in English, or zebramarmor and zebrajaspis. The minerals and stones are displayed next to their namesake birds and other critters and it’s easy to get the idea even when you don’t speak a word of German.

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The fossil collection is just as comprehensive and impressive. My favourite one is this large fossil of Scyphocrinites that used to float around oceans all around the wolrd some 410 million years ago. The amount of detail is amazing! You can click on the picture to enlarge it.

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Scyphocrinites in detail.

The museum also has few replicas of fossils of large animals, like this Devonian fish. The head alone was close to 1,5 m long. The real things are too fragile to be put on display, but the replicas are so detailed that it doesn’t matter much. Besides there are real ones too, even a real dinosaur leg bone that you can touch. It’s worn smooth and polished where the visitors have caressed it.

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It took an hour to draw this. School classes kept on getting in the way.

Last time I had time to draw other stuff too:

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A volcanic bomb about 50 cm high and a tiny trilobite.

What is interesting is that the human evolution and prehistoric cultures are placed in this museum. The evolution part I get, but the prehistoric art is slightly out of place. I suppose it’s an old divide dating back to the imperial days and the 19th century sensibilities that did not see it as art proper. After all, many old natural history museums also house anthropological collections which were considered primitive and therefore belonging within the natural historical and not art. And so the Naturlhistorisches Museum is where you go when you want to see the Venus of Willendorf and other famous prehistoric venuses. I decided to draw it from a slightly different angle to make it more interesting. What a bum!

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Earl Grey too had come to see the famous Venus of W.

When you start too feel tired and drained it’s time to head for the museum café. Seriously. Go and have a cuppa. The whole building is – just as its counterpart, the art history museum, is – a sight so see in itself. Don’t forget to look up while touring the exhibits as every room is decorated according to its theme with paintings and sculptures.  Take a look at the dinosaur room’s statues especially. The café is situated under the central dome which is much more modest than its counterpart across the yard:

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It’s difficult to drink your cuppa while staring at the ceiling.

And the food it delicious. Do try the traditional pancake and apple strudel. The price will double once you walk across to the art historical museum…

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Imperial Curiosities – Graz & Wien part 2

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While in Vienna for an archeological conference last November, I sneaked away for a visit in the Kunsthistoriches Museum, the Art Historical Museum. I entered soon after it had opened for the day and exited 7 hours later – and I hadn’t seen even the half of it.

The museum seems to have everything from the Ancient Rome and Greece to the modern and the contemporary, from polished gems to huge canvases. If you go through the museum following the chronological order from the oldest to the latest, the first parts are more like a curiosity cabinet and that makes it even more fascinating. It is easy to imagine that you are visiting the private collections of the emperor seeing his favourite curiosities – which most of the artifacts and works of art originally were. The splendour, the sumptuousness, the sheer extravagance is breathtaking. For example, take a look at this vase:

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Looks like crystal, doesn’t it, but it’s not. It is actually made of a single quartz crystal, a rock crystal, not glass. It big, huge, actually: maybe 50cm from the base to the top. And it was not the only one. If you look carefully, you can see two others behind it, and that’s not all of them. There are dozens of various sizes on display!

It’s difficult to comprehend the amount of wealth that made collecting on this scale possible.

Another impressive piece of craftsmanship were these structurally realistic and extremely detailed, delicate bouquets made of various metals. The patience it must take to create one of these:

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Nice, but I wouldn’t want to dust these. Suppose that’s why one would have an army of servants…

There were so many amazing works of art that I just walked from one to the next in complete awe. It wasn’t until I got to the Roman and Greek collections that I managed to draw something. The Classical statues and other artifacts were more familiar and they therefore did not left me as wonderstruck as the other curiosities. This classical athlete/prince was one of my favourites:

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The bronzes and other statues were extremely well lit, as you can see. The light levels were rather low (it’s not necessary for the conservation) and spotlights highlighted the statues beautifully. (Hihii!) But seriously, an even, monotonous lighting is not the best for three dimensional works of art. A more subdued and directional light reveals the character of the statues. Also, the museum had succeeded in avoiding one of the most annoying mishaps of museum lighting: the head of the visitor shading the object. You might have noticed this in most museums. Often the spotlights are placed so that when you get closer to a vitrine to have a closer look as something, your head and shoulders get in front of the light and you unavoidably cast a shadow on the object. No matter how you try to move, the object remains in shadow unless you move back and you again can’t see the detail you were interested in. Here this was seldom a problem. All the artifacts in these pictures were in vitrines but, as you can see, there are only a few reflections from the glass.

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The was my favourite one. It’s not a Classical but a Neoclassical sculpture. Sadly I have lost the piece of paper on which I wrote the artist’s name.

There ware so many incredible artifacts there that it would have been easy to become lost in photographing everything I saw. I did manage to fight the urge and drew these two treasures:

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I bet Eutropios lit up the room when he walked in.

The one on the left was a bust of a really sour looking fella. Not your standard Classical head. Delightful! The one on the right was a small, maybe 6-7cm tall bronze figurine, a kind of an idol. Sadly there was very little information available in English in the exhibition. I really would like to know more about these disfigured idols.

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It wasn’t only the objects of art that were impressive, the museum building itself is magnificent. This, of course, should not be surprising. What else could an originally imperial art museum be! However, the trouble with imperial splendour is that it sometimes overwhelms the art, like here in the hall of classical marbles where the sculptures were lost in the marble walls and gilded ceilings. Sometimes you just can’t tell the trees from the forest (not the other way round).

The marbles hall aside, the building is an art historical wonder in itself. You could spend a day looking at it alone, drinking in all the architectural details, period features, and intertextual clues and icons. Sitting in the upper restaurant was in itself a superb experience. And the lunch wasn’t too bad either.

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Now this is a proper staircase.

It was a wonderful seven hours but while it uplifted me, it was also slightly exhausting. In a way is was a delight to return to the conference the next morning and to spend most of the day listening to various presentations. Not that they were dreary but they are less exiting in an electrifying kind of a way. More subdued and intellectually inspiring in other ways. Though I would love to be there when a scientific presentation gets the audience to jump up in excitement…

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Evan Thompson

Professor of Philosophy, University of British Columbia

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