Halfway up you’ll see the painting of Kaiser Franz I. Stephan von Lothringen surrounded by his
rap band scientific advisers.
The husband of Empress Maria Theresia had the time, money and inclination to push back the frontiers of science, and it’s his acquisitions and commissioned projects that form the basis of the historical collections.
The floor starts with Room 21 and the world revealed only through microscopes, of which there are plenty to look through.
Rooms 22-24 then cover the simpler organisms, everything from coral to coleoptera (beetles), with rows of specimens and wall-mounted educational displays.
So, for example, you can learn about sea silk made from mollusc secretions, said to be even finer than traditional silk. The poor molluscs had a hard time of it in the past: for example, thousands of sea snails valiantly gave their lives to supply enough purple dye to decorate one Roman garment.
Be sure to look at the giant clam shell in Room 23. Their pearls can exceed 6kg.
And there’s a Japanese spider crab which was a gift to Emperor Franz Joseph I from Emperor Meiji-Tenno of Japan. Because nothing says “fraternal greetings” more effectively than a giant marine crustacean.
Room 24 reflects the quote from biologist JBS Haldane, who figured that any creator must have “an inordinate fondness for beetles“. You’ll find plenty here. My highlights:
Vitrine 86: the Goliath and Hercules beetles (there’s a reason for those names)
- Vitrine 88: a whole slew of ladybird beetles showing the numerous spot combinations and designs
- Vitrine 90: more big beetles, including the Titan beetle and the over-sized mandibles on Macrodontia cervicornis
- Vitrine 91 (the lower half): Batocera and Rosenbergia beetles that look like something out of the Alien films
- Giant over-sized insect models to add another little shudder to those of us not totally comfortable with beetles and bugs
The rest of this floor is dedicated to vertebrates – fish, reptiles, birds, mammals etc. Most rooms feature an array of preserved specimens without the same degree of infotainment (or English) you see on the lower floor.
You have two options I think. You can pass fairly quickly through each room, pausing for a few highlights, and end with coffee and cake in the sumptuous cafe.
Or you can take a more leisurely pace and absorb both the historical context – like specimens of species that are no longer with us – and the rare art of taxidermy: watch out for a handful of scenes and poses that have won international prizes for their quality.
Anyway, Rooms 25 and 26 introduce sharks and fish, including a very rare West Indian Ocean coelacanth (Latimeria chalumnae), often described as a living fossil since this kind of fish was thought to have become extinct millions of years ago.
Reptiles and amphibians dominate Rooms 27 and 28. The highlights for me were:
- A Komodo dragon – these lizards can reach up to 3m in size and hunt deer
- A huge 5.3m gavail or gharial (Gavialis gangeticus) – a fish-eating crocodile from India
- Giant tortoises from the Galapagos islands
The tortoises illustrate my point about the historical context – these animals are now extremely rare and heavily protected.
Um, achtung birds(?)
Next up are the birds, which grace Rooms 29-32. These range from songbirds to seabirds, prey to predator, the common to the (extremely) rare – around 2,500 are on display. My particular highlights:
- A shoebill (Balaeniceps rex) in Room 30 with (surprise) its massive shoe-shaped bill
- A moa skeleton (also Room 30). Now extinct, the biggest species of these ostrich-like New Zealand natives could reach 3.6m in height
- A dodo skeleton (Room 31). If I recall right, not all the bones come from the same bird, but still…a dodo!
- Take a closer look at some of the prepared specimens in Room 32 – that’s where I found the prize winners
Mammals and marsupials
The rest of the rooms (33-39) cover our furry (and not so furry) friends, like rodents, sea mammals, rhinos, zebras, goats, sheep, antelope, big cats, big bears, monkeys and apes.
Some rooms have more English than others, some also have complementary displays, others don’t. My highlights:
- The sea creatures in Room 34 are impressive. For example, there’s a fin whale skeleton, a narwhal skull and a huge elephant seal
- The same room features the skeleton of a Steller’s sea cow. Being large, slow and edible, the species succumbed to the traditional fate of large, slow and edible creatures – we hunted them to extinction (see also the dodo, moa etc.)
- Room 35 has a preserved Javan rhino from 1801. There are now only a handful left (in Ujung Kulon National Park in Java, Indonesia)
- Who doesn’t love a panda bear? See Room 38. Schönbrunn zoo also has pandas for those who like their bears still breathing
And that brings you almost to the end of the museum. There’s space upstairs for temporary special exhibitions but since these change regularly, it’s best to check the museum’s website for details.