First Friday: Kunstkammer, Vienna’s Grand Re-Opening

Kunstkammer visualization. © hg merz architekten
Kunstkammer visualization. © hg merz architekten

A new feature on the Context blog will be our First Friday series, where on the first Friday of each month we bring you inside the galleries and museums that make our cities so unique and exciting.  Stay tuned for insider information and special access into the arts, from classical to contemporary.

Imagine yourself surrounded by the most opulent tapestries, finely carved ivories, and delicate goldsmith work.  With the re-opening of one of Vienna’s gems, the Kunstkammer, on March 1 this dream will become a reality.  After a closure that lasted almost 10 years, historians, art lovers, and curious travelers have been eager to see what the new design and layout of the space will bring.  As we anticipate the opening of this significant collection, we turned to Barbara Karl, art historian, Context docent, and a curator at MAK to help us understand more about the Kunstkammer and why visitors should be excited about the grand re-opening.

Before we turn attention to the re-opening, just what is a Kunstkammer and what makes it so special?  Known in English as a “Cabinet of Curiosities” these collections were a late-Renaissance European invention where objects whose categorial boundaries were yet to be defined were cultivated. They were known a variety of names such as Cabinet of Wonder, and in German Kunstkammer (“art-room”) or Wunderkammer (“wonder-room”). Modern terminology would categorize the objects included as belonging to decorative arts, art (portrait collection), natural history (sometimes faked), geology, ethnography, archaeology, religious or historical relics and antiquities. The Kunstkammer presented the cosmos en miniature or a theater of the world and placed the patron virtually in the center of this microcosm. This was true especially for royal collections, such as Vienna’s Kunstkammer, while most other scholarly collections were more focused on the special interest of the owner. Kunstkammern stand at the beginning of the development that led to the foundation of museums.

Context Travel: The Kunstkammer has been closed to the public for about 10 years. Can you give any insight into the reasons behind why the restructuring was necessary?

Barbara Karl: A new installation was necessary to comply with changing standards of museum presentation. Museums, especially the decorative object based ones, change their displays roughly every 20 to 30 years. The new installation will include new media education etc. Delay was caused by financial uncertainties.

CT: What is it in particular that makes the Kunstkammer in Vienna so unique?
BK: Emperor Rudolf II, an avid collector, owned the largest and most splendid Kunstkammer of his time, actually perhaps of all times. It was housed in the Hradschin in Prague and was later transferred to Vienna. This was the core of the Kunstkammer collections; many items on show today can be identified in the inventories of the early 17th century. Other collections of the Habsburg family were integrated over time. The whole collections were kept in the imperial palaces until the foundation of the Kunsthistorische Museum in the late 19th century. Together with the Schatzkammer, or Imperial Treasury, it forms a unique ensemble that provides insight into how the ruling family justified their right to rule and perceived the world (and was perceived by the world). Many objects were lost over time but many of the most splendid objects survived.

Salt Cellar by Benvenuto Cellini

BK: The focus will be n the decorative arts. The famous saliera by Benvenuto Cellini will surely be part of the display, as will be several wonderful tapestries –  the KHM owns one of the largest and best collections of tapestries, also formerly in the imperial household. In addition there will be other famous works of art on show: turned ivories and stone cut items, by some of best crafttsmen of their times, such as the Milanese Miseroni family.

CT:  Have you heard anything about the new space? What can visitors look forward to in the new opening that will enhance their experience?

BK: It is certain that the works of art shown were the best created at the time. They are simply breathtaking. How they are displayed exactly is still top secret! New media will accompany the visitor, but again it is the works of art that matter!

From mid-March Context Vienna will begin providing guided visits to the Kunstkammer.  For a preview of the space, see the below video, which was recently released by the Kunsthistorisches Museum.