Now you probably aren’t that keen to read a credit agreement between two soldiers to the value of 200 drachmas. But what if they drew up that agreement on papyrus around 2,000 years ago? And that’s not even close to the oldest item in the Papyrus Museum.
(NB: Closed until a relaunch planned for mid-April 2021, at which point I’ll update this article.)
- Globally-important collection of valuable papyrus dating back up to three thousand years
- Also has mummy portraits, stelas, and more
- Quite small, so easily done in a few minutes
- Housed inside the National Library with much display information also in English
- €5 for a combination adult ticket with the Esperanto and Globe museums (or use a Vienna Pass)
- Often has a temporary exhibition on, too
- See also: Vienna Museums
Inside the Papyrusmuseum
(All images courtesy of the British Library)
Vienna’s a great place for connections to the past. Mahler’s piano, the Holy Roman Emperor’s crown, Napoleon’s jacket, the bullet-ridden car from Sarajevo, and so on.
The items in the Papyrus Museum belonged to no famous figures and their content cannot be described as anything but banal: a recipe here, a prenuptial contract there. And yet their worth perhaps exceeds those more celebrity items thanks to the historical importance and age – some of the papyrus sheets are around 3,000 years old.
The museum’s quite small, tucked away below ground in the National Library of Austria, where cabinets present (surprise!) papyrus from various eras of ancient history. A brief introduction to the collection and the material precedes sets of themed displays.
An interest in ancient Egypt helps, of course, but it’s a humbling experience to wander round. Many of the texts, written in various languages depending on their age, address the same concerns we have today: credit agreements, letters of complaint, fish orders, medicinal recipes, and maths exercises.
This commonality across the centuries reminds us of a shared human experience and the ephemeral nature of existence. That sounds a bit pretentious, so let me put it another way: it’s kind of reassuring to think of Greek students grumbling over their maths exercises, too. Needless to say, the Papyrus Museum collection can now be found on UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register.
Experts tend to cite the book of the dead of Sesostris from the 15th century BC as the absolute highlight of the collection, but I preferred a more literary item…
Xenophon (431 BC to 354 BC) wrote the Hellenica, chronicling “Greek” history from around 411 BC to just before his death. The Papyrus Museum has the oldest example of the first book of the 7-book series, written around the second and third century AD on the back of a redundant list of land taxes. Wow.
The museum also contains a few items not made of papyrus. For example, a small collection of mummy labels, mummy portraits, shabti (small figurines put into graves), and stelas (essentially gravestones). If that tickles your interest, I can strongly recommend the Egyptian collection at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, too.
Tickets & visitor tips
The Papyrus Museum sits in the Neue Burg wing of the Hofburg Palace. So you can buy a ticket direct from the service desk at the entrance to the library. At the time of writing, an adult ticket cost €5. The Vienna Pass (review) gives you one-time free entry.
As the museum shares space inside the library, many of the latter’s facilities are at your disposal. For example, just inside the entrance is a seating area with machines selling drinks and snacks.
Although most of the overview displays are in German, individual item labels are in English, too.
The museum is closed from October 5th, 2020, for a few months. The planned reopening is set for mid-April 2021 with new and expanded displays.
How to get to the Papyrus Museum
See the Neue Burg article for travel tips on reaching the area. The entrance is slap bang in the middle of the curved part of the building (you can’t miss it). Go in and through the glass doors to the foyer of the library. Once through the ticket barrier head left to find the Papyrus Museum, which is downstairs.
Address: Neue Burg, Heldenplatz, 1010 Vienna | Website