Imperial Vienna

Vienna was the imperial capital in Europe from the 15th to the early 20th century. Its historical splendour, importance and continuity easily diminish London, Paris, Berlin and Moscow. Vienna was the power base of the Holy Roman emperors of the Habsburg dynasty from 1440 to 1806, then imperial capital of Austria and Austria-Hungary until 1918. All this left a profound mark on the city and a complex imperial heritage.

The imperial city palace, the Hofburg, dates back to the 13th century and was the main residence of the Habsburg emperors. It’s an immense complex, still the seat of the Austrian chancellor, but like the newly reconstructed Berlin Stadtschloss now mostly contain museums and other public institutions.

You cannot miss the Hofburg treasury with the profoundly interesting imperial regalia, including the 11th century Reichskrone used until 1806 and the spurious Holy Lance. The Imperial Armouries is an unbelievable collection of all things martial. There’s also the Spanish Riding School, an ethnographic museum, the Imperial library and an excellent garden café in the Palmenhaus.

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The old Imperial library in the Hofburg, now a representation venue of the National library

Imperial crypt
The Kaisergruft, or Imperial crypt of the Habsburg dynasty since 1633, is situated in the Capuchin monastery in Vienna, a few hundred meters from the Hofburg, and was used as late as 2011 for the burial of Archduke Otto von Habsburg, the last Crown Prince of Austria-Hungary.

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Skull wearing the Reichskrone (Imperial crown) on the sarcophagus of emperor Charles VI in the Kaisergruft

The Kaisergruft is a large underground complex with 145 burials, most in impressive metal sarcophagi and including 12 emperors and 18 empresses. It’s a strange and truly spooky place to visit.

Imperial museums
The imperial complex of central Vienna includes two immense museums, the Naturhistorisches (natural history) and the Kunsthistorisches (art history), both inaugurated in the 1880s, though their collections date much further back.

They have everything to do with empire. The Naturhistorisches builds heavily on 19th century imperial expeditions to all parts of the globe, the Kunsthistorisches has its base in the imperial art collection. Furthermore, their architecture and in particular the painted interior decorations both mould and perform imperial culture through the persons, landscapes and perspectives chosen.

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Kunsthistorisches Museum
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In the Naturhistorisches Museum

The Naturhistorisches Museum contain everything imaginable from the natural world. Typical for its time of construction it also contains European prehistory since this was thought of as primitive/natural then, and it used to contain ethnographica from what was then seen as “primitive” peoples worldwide. The latter has been moved out and is now partly on exhibit in the Hofburg, though murals and plaster people still remain in the decorations.

The Kunsthistoriches, on the other hand, and except for later art, also contain collections from ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, since this was thought of as the origins of culture.

Some of these imperial collections, and in particular all amazing things taken under more or less dubious expedition circumstances from peoples around the globe, provoke questions: what are all these things doing here today and how can the issues around their initial collection and the perspectives under which they were exhibited be handled today? There are several ways to address this; to academically historicize the collections and their information reframing context and perspective, to repatriate some of them and also to publicly discuss and exhibit the dark and complicated histories surrounding them. Some of this is being done in the ethnographical section of the Hofburg, more could be done in the old imperial museums.

There is more imperial heritage to be seen, most importantly the Schönbrunn palace complex just outside central Vienna, but that will be another journey.

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Ancient Egypt in the Kunsthistorisches Museum



Berlin museums top 10

Uggla finalBerlin is a fantastic historical city with wonderful museums and you can easily spend weeks seeing them all. Here is my personal top 10.

1. Neues Museum
The great thing about Neues museum is that it tells so much history just in itself. It was built as a proud Prussian monument in 1855, had a glorious time in the era of imperial Germany but was then miserably destroyed in WWII and a cold war ruin. When reconstructed in 2009, the architect made sure to preserve all of its historical phases which can now be marvelled at by the visitor. It’s an historical museum with great treasures on display not to be missed such as the Nefertiti bust and the Bronze Age golden “wizard hats”.

2. Jewish Museum
This is the largest Jewish museum in Europe, full of interesting exhibitions. What’s special about this museum is the extraordinarily well performed coherence between architectural form and story content. As a visitor you follow the history of the Jews in Germany chronologically and the house itself gets gradually more sad, desperate and twisted when presenting early 20th century times, ending in the void of the chilling Holocaust tower.

3. Pergamon Museum
The Pergamon museum is fantastic and completely crazy. Archaeologists of imperial Germany, just as their counterparts in Britain and France, decided it was a good idea to bring home not just small artefacts but entire monuments from the classical Mediterranean world. But the Germans did it most thoroughly. Just wait until you see the Pergamon Altar, the incomparable Ishtar Gate and the Victory stele of Esarhaddon.Berlin 34. German Historical Museum
The museum opened in 1987 and stands for a fully updated and thoroughly researched history of Germany. It is big, full of very informative exhibitions, well worth a visit but somewhat boring. It does great and important projects and temporary exhibitions on contemporary subjects.

5. Topography of Terror
This is a place not to be missed when in Berlin since it tells the awful but important story of the terror during the Nazi regime in Germany and Berlin specifically. Located at the site of former main SS, SD, Einsatzgruppen and Gestapo headquarters, it has well-presented but also challenging exhibits due to the difficult subject, both indoors and outdoors.

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6. Natural history Museum
The Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin is not just any natural history museum. What’s special here is that they have some of the most famed dinosaur fossils of all including the Berlin Archaeopteryx, possible the most famous fossil in the world. It’s a big museum, the exhibitions are good and especially the impressive Dinosaur Hall with mounted skeletons of some of the largest beasts that ever lived.

7. Schwules Museum
This is a museum exhibiting LGBT life in Berlin. What’s great about it is that it does this very well and always seems to have new and exciting projects and temporary exhibitions rolling.

8. Deutsches Currywurst Museum
The Currywurst is a signature snack of Berlin. There’s actually no curry in the sausage itself, it is in a special sauce and sprinkled on, but it’s not a bad snack at all. The dish has a charming story including an old lady trying to get by in post-war Berlin and I think the museum is rather good too.

9. Altes Museum
Opened as a Prussian royal arts museum in 1830, the Altes Museum has instead housed the most important Berlin collections of classical antiquities since the early 20th century and still does. The Altes Museum has some startling exhibits of sculptures and, artefacts from antiquity which you should not miss when here.

10. DDR Museum
This place tells the story of life in East Germany in the Cold war era. It is full of trinkets and reconstructions and is well worth seeing though maybe leaning a bit too much towards nostalgia rather than the hard sides of the topic.

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