Let us begin at the beginning, in a time before we even 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 Natural History Museum.
- Extraordinary collection of precious minerals, especially the bouquet of gemstones
- World’s largest meteorite collection
- Dinosaurs (including an animatronic Allosaurus)
- Excellent displays on the evolution of cultures and modern man
- Note that some items may vary dependent on exhibitions and improvements
- See also: NHM tickets & visitor information
Minerals and more
Those with geological interests need only know that galleries 1-4 house one of the world’s great scientific collections of minerals.
Those without geological interests (and let’s be honest, there are one or two of us) should still pay attention, because some hidden joys lie 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.
So, what are the highlights from the perspective of the casual visitor?
In Gallery 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, Versailles, the Paris opera house, and Westminster cathedral.
Check the middle vitrine, too. The exhibits offer little insights into European history. For example, you’ll find Steinsalz (halitite) labelled as from “Galizien, Oest.” (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.
(Some displays in the museum appear a little archaic for a modern institution, but remember that these displays are actually historical artifacts in their own right).
I’m not a mineral fan, but there’s 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.
The recently refurbished Gallery 4 has the gemstones and precious metals.
Be sure to look at the opposite wall where the exit to Gallery 5 is. There you’ll find giant emeralds and other gemstones, not to mention precious metals. For example:
- An 82.2 carat diamond (a typical diamond ring is 1 carat)
- An opal weighing over half a kilo
- An 826g gold nugget
- A 6.2kg nugget of platinum
One nugget turns out to be a present from Nicholas I of Russia to Emperor Ferdinand 1 in 1836. It certainly beats a bunch of flowers and a box of chocolates. Though talking of flowers…
Empress Maria Theresa did present her husband with a rather unusual bouquet in 1764. Look closely to see it even has insects on the blooms.
This particular bunch of flowers does have one tiny difference to your traditional florist’s arrangement: everything is made of precious gems, including pearls, sapphires and over 2,000 diamonds(!).
A little expensive for most budgets, but at least you never have to worry about keeping the water topped up in the vase.
Meteorites and fossils
(Triassic fossils. Image courtesy of the British Library)
Gallery 5 houses the meteorite collection – the world’s largest – with an almost 300kg monster from 1866 greeting you as you enter, and lots of interactive displays, particularly around the walls. One of the newest acquisitions is one half of the Galb Inal lunar meteorite.
I made the mistake of viewing the impact simulator, which happened to pick a spot for a meteorite “landing” near my apartment (with inevitable consequences).
Galleries 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 successfully integrates modern presentations and information with the old cabinets. If you have small kids, for example, tell them to keep their eyes open in Gallery 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…
Galleries 8 to 10 are the ones you’ve been waiting for. Among the highlights:
- A near complete fossil of a Mesohippus, a forerunner of the modern horse
- The lower jaw of a Deinotherium. Lower jaw might sound uninspiring, until you realise how much dental floss you’d need to keep those mighty tusks in shape
- Skeletons of a Diplodocus, Iguanadon and similar, and the most inappropriately named dinosaur, Allosaurus fragilis. There’s nothing fragile about this T-Rex lookalike, as the impressive animatronic model demonstrates.
- As a special bonus to get the kids giggling – fossilised dinosaur poo
- A genuine Sauropod bone you may actually touch. It’s around 140-150 million years old
Before you leave the dinosaur area, do take the time to check the exit that returns you direct to the entrance hall. The display of gold jewellery dates back as far as the 4th millennium BC; the gold discs of Stollhof are the second oldest gold items ever found in the world.
Galleries 11 to 13 reopened in 2015 after extensive refurbishment, so feature modern bilingual displays dealing with the evolution of cultures and modern man.
The area begins with the obligatory pottery, tools, jewellery, and similar. Do pop into the side room in Gallery 11, though. This is where the Venus of Willendorf (pictured above 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, “Fanny” or the “figurine from Stratzing”, is 36,000 years old.
Just to put that in perspective, someone sculpted dear Fanny over 30,000 years before anyone had the bright idea to arrange some big rocks in a circle at a place called Stonehenge.
Gallery 12 features extensive reconstructions of the salt mines in Hallstatt. Whatever your views on 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). Researchers know what parasites gave the average mine worker an unfortunate itch and can even suggest the kind of leaves likely used as toilet paper.
The remaining rooms on this floor look at the evolution of man. A couple of highlights:
- A copy of the 996 AD document that carries the first mention of the word, Austria (“Ostarrichi”), issued by Emperor Otto III
- A video installation that projects your image on a wall, allowing you to see yourself wearing 3000 years of human fashions
- The inconspicuous cubicle and screen in Gallery 15, which takes your photo, then transforms it into your choice of an early human lookalike
The way back to the museum’s entrance hall takes you past the digital planetarium with its films and live shows. You’ll need an extra ticket to access these, which you get from the website or information desk.
All live shows are in German, but films are available in English. 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.