History and importance of the geoscience collections at the Natural History Museum Vienna
Published:November 27, 2018
Christian Koeberl, Franz Brandstätter, Mathias Harzhauser, Christa Riedl-Dorn, 2018. "History and importance of the geoscience collections at the Natural History Museum Vienna", Museums at the Forefront of the History and Philosophy of Geology: History Made, History in the Making, Gary D. Rosenberg, Renee M. Clary
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The Natural History Museum Vienna is one of the most important museums of natural history in the world. Its collections date back to the year 1750, when the Emperor Franz Stephan of Lorraine (Franz I. Stephan) purchased (from Italy) what was then the largest and most famous collection of natural history specimens. The meteorite collection of the Natural History Museum in Vienna, Austria, has the longest history of all comparable collections in the world. In the second half of the eighteenth century, soon after the foundation of the Imperial Natural History Cabinet in 1750, the Viennese curators began to collect meteorites. Although the first curators neither believed in the extraterrestrial origin nor accepted—in several cases—the written and witnessed histories of these allegedly “heavenly” stone and iron masses, they preserved them in the Natural History collection. Among the first acquisitions were the historical important meteorites Hraschina (Agram), Tabor, Krasnojarsk (Pallas iron), and Eichstädt. These and other well-documented specimens from the Vienna collection were, for example, used by E.F.F. Chladni for his seminal treatises of 1794 and 1819, respectively. The central figure in the early history of the collection is Carl von Schreibers (1775–1852). After the fall of the Stannern meteorite in 1808, he availed himself of every opportunity to acquire meteorite specimens. His continued interest in meteorites laid the foundation for the Vienna collection to be of the historical and scientific importance it is today. Due to the efforts of Schreibers, who also is regarded as founder of meteoritic science in Vienna, and his successors, the Vienna collection became the largest and most extensive in the course of the nineteenth century.
In terms of the geological and paleontological collections, early expeditions and collecting campaigns were mainly targeting exotic animals and plants, while paleontological objects were welcome but subordinate. It was only in the early nineteenth century that the paleontological collections were—literally and figuratively speaking—systematically enlarged. Internationalization and diversification became the focus of the collection strategy. The paleontology collections at the Vienna museum also became important in the Darwinian view of evolution.
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Museums at the Forefront of the History and Philosophy of Geology: History Made, History in the Making
Natural history museums have evolved over the past 500 years to become vanguards of science literacy and thus institutions of democracy. Curiosity about nature and distant cultures has proven to be a powerful lure, and museums have progressively improved public engagement through increasingly immersive exhibits, participation in field expeditions, and research using museum holdings, all facilitated by new technology. Natural history museums have dispersed across the globe and demonstrated that public fascination with ancient life, vanished environments, exotic animals in remote habitats, cultural diversity, and our place in the cosmos is universal. This volume samples the story of museum development and illustrates that the historical successes of natural history museums have positioned them to be preeminent facilitators of science literacy well into the future.