museum assistant in Vienna: Naturhistorisches Museum & Joseph Cornell

It’s amazing how a decision that seems to be of no importance at all, can turn into a great experience. I chose to begin my Viennese museum marathon with Naturhistorisches Museum for a very simple reason: it was the only one that opens before 10:00 AM. Later on that day, while wandering through Joseph Cornell’s exhibition at Kunsthistorisches Museum, I realised that I couldn’t have planned it better.

Joseph Cornell Palace 1943 Box construction, 26.7 x 50.5 x 13 cm The Menil Collection, Houston Photo The Menil Collection, Houston. Photography: Hickey-Robertson © The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation / Bildrecht, Wien, 2015

Although I’ve been to Vienna several times before, it’s been my first visit to Naturhistorisches Museum. For quite some time I had been strongly convinced that natural history museums, with all these minerals, fossils, dozens of sorted insects and stuffed animals, are pretty unlikely to gain my curiosity, let alone attention. I only realised how mistaken I was when, last year, my family dragged me to the Natural History Museum in London. It was incredible! Never before have I seen such a lively museum (don’t mistake lively with crowded). Young parents with toddlers, elderly people holding their grandchildren by the hand, everybody genuinely interested in what was going on around them. That’s precisely what I call learning through fun. I left Natural History Museum with a resolution that I’ll visit places of this kind everywhere I go.

The Naturhistorisches Museum in Vienna opened in 1889, just eight years later than the Natural History Museum in London, therefore the core collections of both museums are very similar. It’s divided into thirty-nine halls dedicated to different groups of exhibits:

1st floor: minerals, stones, meteorites | history of earth, fossils | dinosaurs | ice age, evolution| prehistory | anthropology | planetarium

2nd floor: microcosm | protozoans, corals, mollusks | crabs, arachnids, insects | vertebrates

The museum in furnished with beautiful, original 19th-century cabinets, glass cases and sofas. Contemporary exhibits and multimedia have been placed within the exhibition space in a very discreet manner, not to spoil the historical aura of museum’s interior. The exhibits have been preserved in excellent condition. It’s hard to believe how it’s even possible that stuffed birds from the collection consisting of some 2500 species (divided into Austrian birds and those from all around the world, including many exotic species), managed to keep their astonishing colours through well over 100 years. For sure the conditions of maintenance are controlled with great precision and care — please note that depending on the character of exhibits the room temperature changes significantly. If you’re planning to visit the NHMW with kids, make sure you have something warm to put on them, as some of the rooms are chilly.

After leaving Naturhistorisches Museum, I crossed the Maria-Theresien-Platz and entered the NHMW’s twin building, Kunsthistorisches Museum. Both edifices were designed in a neo-renaissance manner by Gottfried Semper, German architect known for designing the Opera House in Dresden, Gemäldegalerie in Dresden, and Burgtheater in Vienna. Semper also spent some time in London; he even proposed a design of the Victoria and Albert Museum, but his plan was rejected because of being too costly. The Kunsthistorisches Museum houses one of the world’s greatest collections of painting and sculpture. Undoubted highlights of the collection are the paintings by Peter Brueghel the Elder, Caravaggio, Peter Paul Rubens, Diego Velazquez, or Johannes Vermeer van Delft. KHM can also be proud of its beautifully displayed collection of Roman sculpture portrait, as well as the spectacular Kunstkammer Wien, presenting jewels and masterpieces of goldsmith’s work, including the famous Cellini salt cellar. Those who enjoy criminal stories involving works of art may find it interesting that the Cellini salt cellar had been stolen in 2003, and was missing for three years. It has been returned by the thief himself in 2006.

I know the collection of KHM pretty well, therefore I decided to focus only on temporary exhibition. Monographic exhibitions organised by KHM impress me every time; two years ago I saw a magnificent display of Lucian Freud, including many of his earliest paintings that I haven’t seen before. The KHM temporary exhibitions usually are an unique occasion to see particular works alongside others, as they are lent by the world’s most famous museums and private collectors. This year I was lucky enough to be in Vienna shortly before the magnificent exhibition of Joseph Cornell, one of the most fascinating artists of 20th century, has ended.

The exhibition entitled Joseph Cornell. Fernweh was a very emotional experience for me. It reminded me of the moment when I discovered my fascination with the history of how the collections of art and curiosities were transformed into museums. When I look at Cornell’s three-dimensional collages, I can see the history of a museum, from Kunst-und Wunderkammer to precisely categorised collection. Some of Cornell’s boxes resemble pop-up books, others look exactly like glass-cases I’ve seen earlier on that day in the Naturhistorisches Museum. The context that appeared between the two places I’ve visited — the NHMW and the KHM — was striking. Multi-coloured glass beads resembled sparkling beetles carefully placed in dozens of museum cabinets. Accompanied by fossils and cut-out plates depicting exotic birds, they became a miniaturised museum of natural curiosities.

Throughout his life, Cornell never left the US, and yet he was deeply fascinated with the European art, culture, and history. The art substituted long journeys for him. Spending hours cutting out plates, newspaper clippings, or reproductions of world’s most famous artworks, he created his own tale of people and places he has never seen. That’s the power of imagination. He loved music and literature and often alluded to them in his compositions (e.x. Sorrows of young Werther, c. 1966). Another source of inspiration for Cornell’s work was his childhood fascination with theatre and puppets — that’s why many of his cases could serve as doll houses or tiny stages for even tinier actors.

I’ve never seen so many Cornell’s collages within one exhibition, and I suppose that it won’t happen again too soon. The display at Kunsthistorisches Museum was one-of-a-kind. Clear, minimalistic exhibition design let the exhibits burst with colours and amaze with subtle differences of texture. The lights in the display room were low, enhancing the somewhat theatrical aura of the whole collection. Taking pictures was not permitted, but I don’t have a problem with that — I think that the more intimate exhibition is, the less comfortable is watching it accompanied by ubiquitous camera shutter sounds. Moreover, curators of the exhibition prepared an elaborated booklet with full descriptions of exhibits — what more do we need if we have the Internet?

To complete my reflections on the Naturhistorisches Museum in Vienna, and the exhibition of Joseph Cornell’s amazing collages, I’d like to share three interesting things with you. First one is a book Collectors & curiosities by Krzysztof Pomian, renowned Polish philosopher, historian, and essayist. It examines the fascinating story of European collections as the genesis of the modern museum. The book can be found in English, French, and Polish. If you come across it in a library or a bookshop, go for it! It’s really great. The second thing I’d  like to share with you is an album I purchased in the KHM museum shop: The Cabinet of Natural Curiosities, an illustrated book written by 17th—18th-century pharmacist, Albertus Seba. Taschen prepared a beautiful reprint of the original plates — it’s an absolute must-have! And last, but not least, if I managed to attract you to the oeuvre of Joseph Cornell, visit the website The Joseph Cornell Box. Not only can you read about Cornell and his art there, but you can also order a set of elements that will let you create your own “Cornellesque” box.

That’s enough for today. Stay tuned for the next parts of my Viennese museum story!

your museum assistant

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