The History Museum, Albertina, Neubau

The culture is coming out of my ears! Today, for the very first time these holidays, the weather was cold and rainy, so we took refuge in the History Museum, which is located in the same building as the Nationalbibliothek and the Ethnographic Museum (now called the Weld Museum). The building itself is grandiose and imposing, all shiny white marble, staircases, columns and vaulted ceilings.

The History Museum is a bit of an odd space with three wings: one is the Ephesos wing, with a few fragments of ancient Greek ruins (I’m sure they’re archaeologically invaluable, but they aren’t much to look at, especially if you’ve been to the Louvre and the British Museum), and then the two big wings: historical instruments, and arms and armour.

The arms and armour exhibition boasts mostly ancient suits of armour, literally dozens, chiefly from Austria or the Austro-Hungarian Empire but also from the rest of Europe and even Turkey. They have 16th and 17th century armour for knights, horses, 5-year-old kids… Battle-ready or ceremonial… Dark and threatening or silver and elegant… The weapons were mostly firearms, with a wide array of rifles and muskets. I would have liked to take note of the names of all the different pieces of armour, for work, because we often have to translate or directly name the oddest parts of a suit of armour, but to my dismay all the museum’s signs and explanations were in German only. The very only words in English in the entire museum must have been “Entrance” and “Exit”, which surprised me. Do they not get tourists? It’s true that I had basically the entire place for myself…

The next section of the museum was devoted to historical instruments, and again their collection was enormous. They have scores of instruments to illustrate the evolution of string instruments until our modern violin, and likewise for keyboards, from an impressive claviorgan from the 1560s (pictured below) through harpsichords and clavichords until the modern piano. It was very enlightening to see the evolution piece by piece. Outside of those major instruments, they also had curiosities like a 19th century saxophone. A very recommended visit, if you’re interested in either music or war (or both!).

After this visit, we moved on the Albertina Museum, a painting collection with works by masters like Rubens, Degas and Monet, but also some unusual landscapes from Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt. There was also a wing with historical painting about the Vienna of the Habsburgs, which was great to learn about the social and historical events of the time that have informed so much of the city as we see it today. The most popular painting in the museum for some unfathomable reason was that of a bunny rabbit. I don’t know what to tell you; the one I saw in Japan could snap this one like a twig.
You’ll agree that this was enough history for the day, so we moved on to the neighbourhood of Neubau, to check out a more modern Vienna. Mariehilferstrasse was full of people and activity, but Neubaugasse and the surrounding streets, which the guides make sound like a mecca of vintage and alternative design, were pretty empty and featured just a couple of prohibitive fashion stores and the odd second-hand curio store. We would’ve been better off sticking to Mariehilferstrasse; the shops are mostly chains, but at least it looked more lively.
To finish off the day, we needed something that we could do sitting down, and that took the form of the Ring Tram. The Ring is the circle where the old walls of Vienna used to be, before they took them down and created big, wide avenues in their place. There’s a tour tram that runs along these avenues and does the full circle every half an hour. We sat down with immense relief, just as the sun was beginning to shine again, and listened to the audio commentary as the countless monuments, statues and memorials of the city passed by our window. I was enjoying the ride a lot when all of a sudden we arrived at Schwedenplatz… The starting point of the tour. We had done the full circle in barely half an hour! I thought it’d take a lot longer than that and that we’d get to see more of the city… 

Lastly, since we now had to kill, we had an enormous ice cream (for less than half the price I’d pay in Versailles, natch) and had a nice evening stroll along the little streets behind the cathedral, in the old town. Tiny but leafy courtyards, beautiful stores, small cafés, elegant imperial architecture… Such a pleasant way to while away an afternoon!

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