Go back to article: Museums theme – Science vs technology in a museum’s display: changes in the Vienna Museum of Technology with a focus on permanent and temporary exhibitions and new forms of science education

Changes, not necessarily for the better

An interesting indicator of a museum’s thematic focus is its programme of special exhibitions. Between 1929 and 1992, Technisches Museum Wien hosted 161 temporary exhibitions, 46 per cent of them technology-related, 11 per cent science-related and 43 per cent dedicated to other issues (art, photography, toys, museum history, work, people, anniversaries, etc.). Examples include an exhibition of 1964 marking forty years of Austria’s national broadcasting corporation, Österreichischer Rundfunk, another one commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the foundation of Technisches Museum Wien, held in 1968, as well as two special exhibitions (in 1969 and 1971) on space flight and the Moon landing.

Figure 5

Black and white photograph of an exhibition celebrating forty years of an Austrian national broadcaster

Exhibition on ‘40 Years of Österreichischer Rundfunk’

Figure 6

Black and white photograph of an exhibition celebrating fifty years of the Technical Museum in Vienna

Exhibition on ‘50 Years of Technisches Museum Wien’

Figure 7

Black and white photograph of an exhibition display containing a spacewalk suit and a reentry module

‘Space flight to the Moon’ exhibition, 1969


The 1950s ushered in major changes in the permanent galleries at the Technisches Museum Wien. The experimentation room was dismantled and replaced by a series of dioramas: a pharmacy in Baroque times, a copy of Liebig’s laboratory from the Deutsches Museum and an alchemist’s kitchen.

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Colour photograph of the recreated diorama of an historic pharmacy

Backdrop to the Baroque pharmacy

However, whereas the subjects of the temporary exhibits might have seemed to have kept up with the news, the topics hardly reflected the enthusiasm over science of the times, and indeed the underlying approach of museums in Austria had stopped evolving during the decades following the 1950s. This phenomenon, brought on by tenured civil-servant directors resulting in a state generally regarded as near ‘fossilisation’, and the buildings’ poor state of repair, eventually sparked a broad public debate. In 1985, the journalist, writer and city councillor for Vienna, Jörg Mauthe, had triggered the discussion with a series of articles on the plight of Kunsthistorisches Museum: ‘The situation is unbearable, a scandal, a national disgrace that is simply incomprehensible’ (Mauthe, 1985). A year before, Mauthe had visited museums in the US, deeply impressed not only with the quality of exhibitions but also with the management methods these museums employed.  His admiration highlighted the reversal since the 1920s of national standing in museum innovation. In 1986, Vienna’s then deputy mayor, Erhard Busek, called Technisches Museum Wien – in reference to its state of ‘fossilisation’ – a ‘museum of a museum’.  By 1987, international media had caught on to the debate: ‘We are losing our position as a great cultured nation and are well on our way towards museum pre-history’, one comment read. Proposals were raised to demonstratively close down the Museum (’Rebellion in Wiener Museen’, 1987). The Austrian government pledged two billion schillings (more than $2.5 billion in the 1980s) to finance the urgently needed refurbishment of the country’s museum buildings.

In the late 1980s the Museum’s building was in very bad structural shape, a general overhaul including a new exhibition concept was to achieve the desired innovation effect. But even before the Museum’s closure for extensive refurbishment work in 1992, a small hands-on science department based on the American Science Centre concept was set up to test its acceptance among Vienna’s conservative museum goers. Experiences with this new section clearly showed the importance of an innovative re-focus of the Museum’s orientation.

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Colour photograph of museum goers using display items at a museum science centre

TMW’s new Science Centre department before closure

Refurbishing the Museum took longer than expected. During the seven years before its reopening, the Museum made do with just a few special exhibitions, only two of which dealt with science subjects: Chaos, a show taken over from Gemeentemuseum in Den Haag, and an exhibition commemorating the centenary of the discovery of X-rays, which went on to be shown at locations across Austria over the following years.

Figure 10

Colour photograph of an x ray exhibition inside a shopping centre

X-ray exhibition on display in a Vienna shopping mall

It was only in 1999 that half the permanent galleries reopened to the public (the available budget did not cover more) with a new design and exhibition concept. After much discussion, science had been given a permanent place in the building’s basement. Overall, the floor space was now divided as follows:

19,650m² of exhibition space
15,150m² dedicated to permanent exhibitions
8.1 per cent dedicated to science issues

The area available to the sciences was divided in two: one area was dedicated to predominantly historical objects illustrating the evolution of scientific knowledge (Nature and Knowledge), the other (Phenomena and Experiments) took the form of a Science Centre, which was dismantled in 2014 to be changed into a part of the new Transportation gallery (a clear indication of changes once again in the self-image of the Museum). The department’s innovative design – compared to both the old museum and other science exhibitions – meant that, rather than following the classification of the natural sciences as they are taught at university, the exhibition focuses on science methodology, adopting a hands-on approach to complement displays. This was a novel concept among European museums and has since inspired a number of other institutions to follow suit. It represents a successful attempt to introduce new didactic and educational methods to complement text, image and media in order to communicate a subject matter.

Figure 11

Colour photograph of museum goers using experimentation devices within a museum exhibition

Phenomena and Experiments exhibition (closed and dismounted in 2014)

Figure 12

Colour photograph of museum goers at an exhibition about nature and knowledge

Nature and Knowledge exhibition

Figure 13

Colour photograph of museum goers using experimentation devices within a museum exhibition on energy

Hands-on in the Energy Department

The well-placed use of science-centre elements, including hands-on features and other communication strategies, such as science shows, within the setting of a conventional exhibition of historical artefacts pioneered a new type of visitor-oriented presentation, which may help to bridge the gap between these two diverse cultures of communicating science and technology. This gap often seems hard to close because the specialist’s expert view tends to obscure other requirements. The communication of science knowledge must be adapted to the needs of ‘ordinary’ visitors, especially those of children and teenagers, as without proper context, scientific phenomena are little more than mindless entertainment. Science centres are hugely popular and even conventional museums can no longer do without science-centre elements. Thus, after visiting Technisches Museum Wien, the Mannheim Landesmuseum für Technik und Arbeit set up three experimentation areas, ‘Elementa’, in an attempt to fight declining visitor numbers, and changed its name to ‘Technoseum’. Berlin’s Museum of Technology has had a science centre for twenty years: ‘Spektrum’, which is housed in a separate building.

The objective of the new exhibition concept was summarised as follows:

A wide variety of historical objects are presented in their cultural, economic and societal contexts, complemented by cutting-edge educational methods to make complex issues easier to understand. The museum perceives itself as an interdisciplinary organisation and a platform for controversial discourse. It makes use of a wide range of educational strategies to reach different cognitive types (Verein Science Center Netzwerk, 2010).

The most recent development (2016) is a new gallery called Innovation forum, displaying aspects of future technology.

There was one group of visitors that the Museum was not yet addressing: pre-school age children, for whom only guided children’s tours were on offer. Many international museums had already begun to specifically target young children. The Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam, the National Museum and Eksperimentarium in Copenhagen, and the London Science Museum were seen as pioneers. In line with this intended diversification, a young-children’s area was established at Technisches Museum Wien, called ‘Mini TMW’ – the first of its kind in an Austrian national museum. The last department to open during the first phase of the Museum’s reopening, ‘Mini TMW’ was set up in 1999 and opened on 5 March 2000. It has been enjoying great popularity ever since and was therefore enlarged to double the size.

Figure 14

Colour photograph of a room within a museum designed to entertain younger children

Mini TMW, original conception

An overview of special exhibitions held at Technisches Museum Wien from 1999 to the present is illuminating. Compared to the period before refurbishment, technology-related exhibitions have gone down to 36 per cent (from 46 per cent) while science-related exhibitions are down to 9 per cent (from 11 per cent), offset by 55 per cent of special exhibitions on other subjects (again including art, photography, museum history, etc.). One of the reasons for this may be a shift in staff focus from technology to the humanities with the introduction of the new museum. Because of their focus on science, two projects in particular stick out from the bulk of exhibition programmes: an exhibition on basic research and an educational programme on enquiry-based learning. 

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/170810/004