From the outside almost identical, inside completely different
Apair of twin buildings stands opposite each other on Maria-Theresien-Platz. Each of them measures roughly 170 x 70 metres, and each is crowned by a 65-metre-high dome. From dome to dome the sun god Helios (on the Museum of Natural History) and Athens, the god of art (on the Museum of Art History), eye each other from a distance. These two figures are virtually the only visible difference between the two buildings, each a mirror image of the other. But how does one distinguish between the two deities, and thus the museums? Athens is wearing an “artistic” golden helmet, whereas Helios on the other hand presents himself as God created him: naked. This little memory hook helps even long-time residents of Vienna to distinguish between the two museums.
“Art is at the same time both the uppermost and the most repulsive” mused Reger, the protagonist of Thomas Berhard’s novel “Alte Meister” (“Old Masters”) (1985), whilst sitting on a bench in the Kunsthistorisches Museum.
Exhibits of the two museums
As similar as the external appearance of the two buildings is, so different are their internal qualities, and that’s not only due to the impressive and imposing design of their rooms. The Museum of Art History houses works covering seven thousand years, with the focus on art from the Renaissance and Baroque. In its high-ceilinged halls await paintings and drawings by Rubens and Raphael, Giorgione and Caravaggio, Bruegel, Dürer, and many other masters.
If you walk across the creaking parquet floors of the Museum of Natural History, on the other hand, there lurk skeletons and life-size models of dinosaurs, while precious stones and Mars meteorites, fossils, and no-one less than the famous Venus of Willendorf await you.
But not only are the two twin buildings inhabited; the Maria-Theresien-Platz between the museums is also lively all year round. In the weeks before Christmas there is a lovely Christkindlmarkt (Christmas market) with stalls offering arts and crafts, and punch. In summer the residents of Vienna relax on the grass or sit and chat on the steps of the statue of Maria Theresia.
Text: Nina Lucia Groß, Fotos: Christine Wurnig