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The nineteenth century was the dawn of scientific and systematic paleontology. The foundation of Natural History Museums—built as microcosmic “Books of Nature”—not only contributed to the establishment of this new discipline but also to its visual dissemination. This paper will take the metaphor of the “book” as a starting point for an examination of the paleontological exhibition at the Natural History Museum in Vienna. In keeping with “Natural Theology,” the earliest natural science museums in Britain were designed as expressions of the medieval idea of the “Holy Book of Nature.” Contrary to this, the Natural History Museum Vienna, opened in 1889, wanted to be a nonreligious museum of evolution. Nevertheless, the idea of the “book” was also influential for its design. According to the architects and the first director, it should be a modern “walk-in textbook” instructive for everyone. The most prominent exhibition hall in the museum is dedicated to paleontology. The hall’s decorative scheme forms a unique “Paleo-Gesamtkunstwerk” (Gesamtkunstwerk: total piece of art). The use of grotesque and mythological elements is a particularly striking feature of the hall’s decoration and raises the question of how this relates to the museum’s claim to be a hard-core science institution. As it was paleontology’s task to demystify the monsters and riddles of Earth history systematically, it seems odd that the decorative program connected explicitly to this world. This chapter sheds light on the cultural traditions that led to the creation of this ambiguous program that oscillates between science and imagination.

Looking at the results of the research on the nature of the earth, one looks into a book that contains the oldest history we humans know. With amazement, we see the wonders of the first epochs of the earth arising before our mind’s eyes, and what until recently have been incomprehensible hieroglyphs is now almost completely clear to us. How many fables may have been created by the sudden appearance of prehistoric structures in the form of animals and plants? No fairy tales, no fantasies, tangible reality now stands before us and yet no less wonderful, even more wonderful, and this miracle has been achieved by science, the restless seeker.

—J. Hoffmann (undated, ca. 1885, p. 1; translation from German)

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