references to charles darwin in the nhm vienna

Held on 12 February International Darwin Day coincides with the birthday of the famous British naturalist Charles Darwin (1809-1882) and serves as homage to his scientific work. Darwin’s theory of biological evolution through natural selection revolutionized how we see both nature and its development.
The Theory of Evolution today still lies at the heart of our understanding of biology. Several references to it can be found in the collections of the Natural History Museum Vienna, while the museum as an institution also has close links to Charles Darwin.
When it opened in 1889, the Natural History Museum in Vienna was the first museum in Europe fully committed to the Theory of Evolution. This was largely thanks to the determination and vision of the museum’s first Director, Ferdinand von Hochstetter (1820-1884), who had been an enthusiastic supporter of Darwin from the very start.
By incorporating his new Anthropological-Ethnographical Department into the existing museum, Hochstetter created the first museum of nature where humans were also presented as an object of research. Hochstetter also used the interior design of the museum to communicate Darwin’s theory to visitors.
(For more information see: The Natural History Museum Construction, Conception & Architecture Jovanovic-Kruspel, Stefanie (text); Schumacher, Alice (photographs); 2014, available to order )
The following ten stations are a selection of the numerous references to Charles Darwin and his scientific work that can be found on and in the NHM Vienna:
1. The most direct reference to Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution can be found in the Upper Dome Hall. It is the Darwin Frieze by Austrian sculptor Johannes Benk (1844-1914), showing an ape pointing to its own chest and holding a mirror out to a boy, who is covering his eyes because he does not want to see his own reflection and the ape. A monkey behind the boy is holding an open book entitled “Darwin. The Descent of Man”. With this scene Johannes Benk directly addresses visitors to the museum and confronts them with the realization that humans are descended from animals.

2. “The Evolution of Minerals” (Hall 1). Earth is home to many more minerals than any other planet in our solar system. This is because over 50% of all minerals on Earth exist only because of life and the ever-changing environmental conditions on our planet, according to the ‘discoverer’ of mineral evolution, Robert M. Hazen from the Carnegie Institution in Washington D.C., USA.

3. “The Descent of Man”: Halls 14 and 15 (Anthropology) focus in detail on the origins of humankind. Highlights include scientifically accurate reconstructions of our ancestors and the chance to walk through savannas with Lucy, the famous early hominid.


4. Dinobird: Hall 10 displays a model of a feathered dinosaur (“dinobird”) – proof that birds are indeed living dinosaurs.

5. Cambrian Explosion: Hall 7 houses famous fossils from the Burgess Shale in the Canadian Rocky Mountains. These over 500-million-year-old animals from the Cambrian period are among the earliest multicellular animal fossils from a time when the first hard-shelled structures began to appear in the animal world. This period is therefore often referred to as the Cambrian Explosion.

6. Living fossil: Hall 26 is home to what is probably the most famous fish, according to evolutionary biologists. Until the sensational re-discovery of Latimeria in 1938, it was long believed that coelacanths had died out millions of years ago.

7. Personal meeting: Hall 27 has two species of iguana from the Galapagos Islands, which Charles Darwin encountered during his trip around the world on the ship Beagle.

8. Haeckel Hall (21): In the German-speaking world, Ernst Haeckel was one of the main proponents of Darwinism around the turn to the 20th century. Copies of famous lithographic prints taken from his book Art Forms in Nature can be found at the windows of Hall 21, depicting marine microorganisms and other sea animals in stunning detail.

9. Austrian Darwinist – Ferdinand von Hochstetter, a famous geologist and the first Director of the Natural History Museum Vienna, was one of the earliest committed Darwinists. A bust of Hochstetter, sculpted by Viktor Tilgner, can be found by the stairs on the first floor. On the stairs towards Hall 50 there is also an oil painting of Ferdinand von Hochstetter by Franz Rumpler.

10. Darwin – only living scientist: The façade of the NHM Vienna is covered with sculptures and portraits of famous researchers. The only scientist to be given this honor during his lifetime was Charles Darwin. His portrait is the last in the chronological series lining the façade facing the Burgring road.

Events and information about International Darwin Day: