Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Looking for the human hand at the Naturhistorisches Museum, Vienna

The Naturhistorisches Museum in Vienna was a 20-minute walk from the pension where I was staying. Armin, who I had been emailing to arrange my visit, was, at the last minute unable to be at work when I came. He was kind enough to make sure I would be left in the capable hands of his friend and colleague Andrea.
Entering via the side of the building I approached a glass fronted security office. Some paper work was filled in, and then I was instructed to walk through two courtyards and enter the stairs in the far right corner and head up to the second floor. Never totally trusting my own interpretation of directions, I had a couple of false starts, including peering through a doorway where I was greeting by a large taxidermied creatures—some in glass cases, others free standing—clearly not the herbarium.

Side entrance

It is always interesting and a little exciting to enter a workplace totally different to one’s own. Often I am on the receiving end, with people intrigued and excited by the equipment and machines of a print studio. Part of the awe of this herbarium was the architecture, opened officially in 1889, its age and grandeur provided a sense of the generations of collectors, explorers and scientists who may have never entered this building, but whose work can be recalled via the tangible specimens and objects stored within. Naturally this history carries with it a certain uneasiness, when considering the pilaging that went hand in hand with 'discovery'.
Prior to coming to Austria I had trawled through the virtual herbaria and selected specimens collected by von Hügel on his Australia visit in 1833/4. Armin had very generously retrieved a number of specimens for me to view (realising early on that this would be beyond me).

19th Century cabinetry

Herbarium boxes are green. I don’t know if they are green all over the world, but in Vienna they are, and it seems fitting. Dr Ernst Vitek, the Director took me through the rules and regulations of the herbarium. In Vienna the specimens are taped to the page, rather than glued (my internet searches on how to make sheet specimens invariably suggests this is the best way, mainly because it is reversible and if necessary the underside of specimens can be looked at. Likewise when framing or mounting works on paper, methods that can be ‘undone’ are preferred to those that are irreversible, such as gluing down the whole work or object). Great care in handling the specimens is required to ensure the sometimes very old plants do not become damaged, and each specimen in wrapped in archival tissue, so that any loose pieces or escaped seeds are contained and can be placed in the little glassine bags attached to many of the sheets.

Eucalyptus Rudis Endl.

Eucalyptus Rudis Endl.

 I was struck by the similarities between handling artworks on paper and handling herbaria specimens (in sheet form). Perhaps my visit to the British museum the week before, where I was lucky enough to view a folio of Mrs Delany’s collages blurred this relationship for me further. Her detailed collages—used for many decades by naturalists due to their botanic accuracy—are incredibly fragile, not just because they are nearly 250 years old, but also, like actual dried plant specimens they are made up of lots of tiny parts from which pieces can break free.

Wahlenbergia, Swan River
Von Hügel collected many specimens while he was in Australia. The bulk of them are, I believe, in the Vienna Naturhistorisches Museum (via Endlicher). But there are also some in Kew and Western Australia, and perhaps other parts of the world too. When I sat with his specimens—collected 200 years ago, and mounted on pale blue paper, labeled in a neat florid hand (his?), and, as is the business of herbariums, relabeled and documented as new names supersede old—I imagined his tall stature bending over plants, his hand carefully pulling a plant from the ground, roots and all, or reaching up to snip leaves and blossom from a tree.

Wahlenbergia, Swan River

Sitting in the herbarium I recall a particular diary entry written in Fremantle, his first Australian stop. It reminds me that even those in pursuit of scientific knowledge have moments of creative reflection on the job. And, I think to myself, he must have been right handed:

One of the unique characteristics of the plants of New Holland is that the beautiful shapes and colours of the flowers reveal themselves to the observer only when he views them carefully at close quarters. So, too, the richness and variety of the flora in all is splendor do not strike the eye till you are close up. The cheerless grey-green changed to the most varied shades of green…. Mingled with brilliant flowers of every kind, in untold numbers.
I am inclined to explain this peculiarity of the landscape of New Holland by comparing it with a painter’s palette, set with the most brilliant colours, which appear only as blurred grey when all these paints are mixed together. The same may hold for all the countless different colours of the leaves and flowers here.
I roamed around this world of colour as if intoxicated… As I approached the hill the native flora became more and more familiar: Hakea… Eucalyptus, Acacia. Familiar species all, they gave me friendly greeting, and even Hugelia (now Trachymene coerulea) reached up to me in kinship with its lovely blue flowers. For the first time in years—long painful years—I lived for an hour in the full delight of the moment. In my left hand I held an enormous bunch of beautiful blooms while my right was gathering ever more new varieties.
The sun had set, and only the fact that I could no longer clearly distinguish the colours reminded me of where I was and that I must turn for home…. When I looked at my flowers, such a variety of them and so beautiful, I realized that there was no one for me to bring them to. I let them drop from my hand and sadly climbed the nearest hill to find my way back. 

(p. 23-4 Baron Charles von Hügel, New Holland Journal November 1833—October 1834, Translated and edited by Dymphna Clark.)

View across to the Museum Quartier

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