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

I. Changes in content – changes in presentation

Technisches Museum Wien might be considered an exemplar of the transformation that the exhibition of science and technology issues in museums has undergone. Founded to mark the sixtieth anniversary of Emperor Franz Joseph’s reign, the Museum was originally established to showcase the achievements of Austrian technology, to be a great place of learning for the entire Austrian people, to advance technological progress and thus to be a lasting monument to Emperor Franz Joseph’s reign (Exner, 1908). These aims are explicitly displayed on a marble plate within the Museum.

In 1909, the Emperor himself laid the foundation stone to the Museum. Exhibitions had been planned by an expert committee, in line with the following principles: ‘A more vivid presentation of the museum’s objects is to help common man to better understand the design, operation and action of technical machinery and to internalise its nature.’ Predominantly comprised of major industrialists, the committee also ensured that the exhibition became a showcase of the Habsburg Empire’s industrial achievements.

From its early days, the Museum was thus conceived as a museum of industry and craft. It also housed a postal and a railway museum with a separate director. Its exhibition halls originally comprised 29 departments, only two of which focused on the natural sciences (Principles of technology and Metrology) on a floor space of about 1,000m² of a total of 16,000m². The exhibitions were strictly organised according to ideas of progressive technological evolution.

Figure 1

Black and white photograph of the interior of an historic railway museum

The Imperial (‘K.k.’) Railway Museum

The Museum was established at a time of mounting interest in popular-education initiatives even though the general public itself paid more attention to questions of class conflict and national self-assertion than intellectual self-improvement. The naturalist Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859), a firm believer in the betterment of humankind through scientific insight, had been the founding father of a movement which was to lead to the establishment of the Urania in Berlin. He started with a series of sixteen public lectures called Kosmos-Vorlesungen at the Berlin Singakademie as early as 1827–1828. His ideas gave rise to the foundation of several societies dealing with popularisation of science such as the Humboldt academy in 1878 and (last but not least) the 1888 Gesellschaft Urania (Petrasch, 2007). The aim of Urania was to ‘popularise the joy of scientific knowledge’ by means of an observatory, experimentation rooms and a science theatre. The idea quickly spread across Europe, spawning similar institutions in its capital cities, including Vienna with a first provisional building in 1898 and the final one in 1910.

Museums founded in around 1900 (such as the Deutsches Museum in Munich) often took up the Urania concept of popular science education and set up experimentation rooms. Technisches Museum Wien was no exception. Like all the Museum’s exhibitions, the experimentation area was organised according to criteria following the structure of the various science disciplines – mechanics, optics, electricity, etc. But it also presented cutting-edge scientific discoveries, such as X-rays or gas discharge phenomena. There is a photograph of the Museum showing an experimentation table set up on the stage of the Main Auditorium.

Figure 2

Black and white photograph of the interior of a large auditorium within a technical museum

The Main Auditorium of Technisches Museum Wien

Figure 3

Black and white photograph of a past gallery exhibition within a technical museum

The experimentation gallery at Technisches Museum Wien

This fitted in with the Museum’s overall concept, which – modelled on the Deutsches Museum in Munich – placed special emphasis on live demonstrations and machines in operation. Such demonstrations were the only educational support made available, however. Visitors were expected to approach the objects on display with due awe, a fact also signalled by the majestic entrance porch with its columns reminiscent of a Greek temple.

Figure 4

Black and white photograph of a very large and grandiose museum building

Front view of Technisches Museum Wien in the 1920s

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/170810/002