Let us begin at the beginning, in a time even before we had mobile phones: a time of minerals, meteorites, fossils and (cue menacing music) dinosaurs.
These items grace Rooms 1 to 10 on the lower, mezzanine floor of the museum, the starting point for most visitors.
Those with geological interests need only know this is one of the world’s great scientific collections.
Those without geological interests (let’s be honest, there are one or two of us) should still pay attention, because there are some hidden joys in among these exhibits.
Don’t be misled by the initial displays: the further you go on this floor, the more English you’ll find and the more infotainment in the form of videos and buttons to press.
The exhibits in the first couple of rooms have their own historical value, so I’m guessing the museum is loathe to undertake too much modernisation there.
So what are the highlights from the perspective of the casual visitor?
Minerals and more
In Room 1, the wall you pass through to enter the room has a display of different building materials which you might easily gloss over, but shouldn’t.
They reveal exactly what was used to construct some of Vienna’s most famous buildings, but also include samples from such iconic locations as the Vatican, Versaille, the Paris opera house and Westminster cathedral.
Check the middle vitrine, too. As I mentioned, the exhibits themselves provide little insights into European history.
For example, you’ll find Steinsalz (halitite) labelled as from “Galizien, Österreich” (Galicia, Austria). Galicia is actually in modern-day Poland and Ukraine – Austria was a bit bigger back when they first put this item on display.
There’s also quartz presented as a gift to Joseph II (the Holy Roman Emperor and Habsburg monarch who died in 1790).
Talking of quartz, there’s a one tonne block to admire. Not something to easily put on even the Imperial mantelpiece.
I’m not a mineral fan, but there is a strange kind of fascination to seeing the array of natural colours and the depth of the collection.
I checked just one small cabinet, for example, and found minerals from Yugoslavia, Switzerland, Nepal, the USA, Norway, Malawi, Vietnam, the USSR, Canada, Nigeria, Madagascar, Ethiopia, France, Italy, Brazil, Germany, Sweden, Pakistan and (of course) Austria.
A global collection indeed.
By the time you reach Room 4 you might be mineraled out. But be sure to look at the opposite wall where the exit to Room 5 is. There you’ll find, for example:
- an 82.5 carat diamond (a typical diamond ring is 1 carat)
- a 594g opal
- an 826g gold nugget
One nugget was a present from Nicholas I of Russia to Emperor Ferdinand 1 in 1836. Beats a bunch of flowers and a box of chocolates,
Although Empress Maria Theresia did present her husband with some flowers in 1764. You can see the original bouquet, which still has insects on the blooms.
There is one tiny difference to your traditional arrangement: everything is made of precious gems, including pearls, sapphires and over 2,000 diamonds.
A little expensive for most budgets, but it does mean you never have to worry about keeping the water topped up in the vase.
Meteorites and fossils
Room 5 is the meterorite collection – the world’s largest – with a 300kg monster from 1866 greeting you as you enter, and lots of interactive displays, particularly around the walls.
I made the mistake of viewing the impact simulator, which happened to pick a spot for a meteorite “landing” near my apartment (which was completely destroyed).
Rooms 6 and 7 cover topics like the origins of the earth and life, biodiversity and climate change – all with English translations – and use the fossil record to trace evolution.
You’ll notice how the museum has successfully integrated modern presentations and information with the old cabinets. If you have small kids, for example, tell them to keep their eyes open in Room 7 – there are little peek-a-boo windows down at toddler eye level.
Now, fossilised amphibian footprints are fine and dandy, but let’s be honest, we’ve all seen Jurassic Park so “bring on the big beasts”…
Room 10 is the one you’ve been waiting for with its life-size skeletons. But don’t skip Room 9 in particular. There’s a near complete fossil of a Mesohippus, a forerunner of the modern horse, and the lower jaw of a Deinotherium. Lower jaws might sounds uninspiring, until you realise how much dental floss you’d need to keep those mighty tusks in shape.
Anyway, on to to Room 10 for your Diplodocus, Iguanadon and similar, and the most inappropriately named dinosaur Allosaurus fragilis.
Nothing fragile about this T-Rex lookalike, as the impressive animatronic model demonstrates. And as a special bonus to get the kids giggling – fossilised dinosaur poo.
Before you leave Room 10, do take the time to check the exit area that returns you direct to the entrance hall. There’s a tent built from a mammoth and a display of gold jewellery that dates back as far as the 4th millennium BC.
Rooms 11-13 reopened in 2015 after extensive refurbishment so feature modern bilingual displays dealing with the evolution of cultures and modern man.
It begins in Room 11 with the obligatory pottery, tools, jewellery and similar. Do pop into the sideroom though. This is where the Venus of Willendorf (pictured left on the poster) lives.
The Venus figure is actually one of the oldest human statues in the world, dating back over 29,000 years. Her neighbour is equally impressive. “Fanny” or the “figurine from Stratzing” is 36,000 years old.
Just to put that in perspective, Fanny was sculpted over 30,000 years before anybody had the bright idea to arrange some big rocks in a circle at a place called Stonehenge.
Room 12 features extensive reconstructions of the salt mines in Hallstatt. Whatever you might think of prehistoric salt mines, it’s frankly amazing what scientists can actually reconstruct from a few scratches on a wall and some bone remnants.
For example, analysis of these bones reveals who did what kind of work (hint: women were not banned to the kitchen). They know what parasites gave the average mineworker an unfortunate itch and can even suggest the kind of leaves likely used as toilet paper.
The remaining rooms look at the evolution of man. In Room 15, look for the inconspicuous cubicle and screen on the left as you come in.
You can take a photo of yourself, watch it transform into an early human lookalike and send the results to an email address. This is me (I should have shaved):
The way back to the museum’s entrance hall takes you past the digital planetarium with films and liveshows. You’ll need an extra ticket to access these, which you get from the website, info desk or when you buy your entrance tickets.
Most of these films and shows are in German, though. This video from the museum gives you a taster:
Once you’re done, it’s time to go up the stairs to the zoological collections.
P.S. The museum’s website has a massive amount of detailed information about their exhibits.