History of the Fish Collection

Fish played only a minor role in the "Naturalien-Cabinette" of the Viennese court, early 18th century precursors of the present Natural History Museum. One of the probable reasons for the initial neglect of this group lay in the difficulties of preparation and preservation. Natural history collections of those days intended to display the most bizarre and monstrous, so the probably oldest objects of the Fish Collection are "basilisks" or "fantasy fish": real fish (mostly rays), transformed into dragon-like creatures by taxidermists.

 

Johann Natterer (1787-1843)

The beginning of the scientific fish collection dates back to the first half of the 19th century, its basis being those appoximately 2,000 specimens collected by Johann Natterer during his 18-years' stay in Brazil (1817 - 1835). Natterer was a member of the expedition which started in 1817 on the occasion of the Austrian princess Leopoldina's wedding with the Brazilian crown prince Dom Pedro. Natterer actually was no ichthyologist - he published only one work, on the South American lungfish (Lepidosiren paradoxa) which he mistook for a reptile - but he was a qualified and very talented draughtsman and painter.Aquarell NattererDuring his years in Brazil he produced numerous sketches and water-colours of fish. Kept today in the archives of the Natural History Museum in Vienna, it was these remarkable illustrations together with the material he collected that triggered off the prospering of systematic ichthyology in Vienna, inseparably connected with the name of J. J. Heckel.

 

Johann Jakob Heckel (1790 - 1857)

Like Natterer, Johann Jakob Heckel was not an academic zoologist. He respected his father's wish and studied agriculture. In 1811, after his father's death, he took over the small family estate near Gumpoldskirchen (a village south of Vienna). His true interest, though, were the natural sciences, in particular botany and ornithology. Moreover he was a skilled draughtsman and such a brilliant taxidermist that his friends spoke of him as having "two right hands". Trying to identify some rare specimens of his considerable collection of bird skins, he came to know Josef Natterer, curator of the "k.k. Hof-Naturalien-Kabinett" (and elder brother of Johann Natterer, already in Brazil at this time). This encounter was the determining factor for Heckel's decision to exclusively devote himself to science. As fish, at the time, were barely represented in the Viennese collection Heckel decided to devote himself to this very subject. In 1820 he was accepted as taxidermist and with much dedication started to make up for his lack of specialized training. Knowledge about this new impetus of Vienna's ichthyology soon spread throughout Europe: Heckel established close contact with the renowned ichthyologists of his time, such as Cuvier, Valenciennes, Bonaparte, Müller or Troschel. Heckel, himself neither a great traveller nor collector, primarily worked on specimens brought to Vienna by others. Among "his" collectors figured Freiherr von Hügel, Russegger and Kotschy, whose activities in Kashmir, Syria, Persia and Egypt remarkably enriched the Viennese collections. Besides focusing on the fish fauna of Asia Minor and North Africa, Heckel treated, among other subjects, the cichlids of Natterer's Brazilian collections and finally fossil fishes. From the systematic-taxonomic point of view especially his works on cyprinids are worth mentioning. His "New classification and characterization of all genera of cyprinids", in which he extensively deals with the importance of pharyngeal teeth as a character with systematic value, is a standard work of ichthyological literature, as are many others of his altogether over 60 scientific publications. Heckel did not live to see his main work appear, "The freshwater fishes of the Austrian Danubian monarchy", which took him 24 years to write and which he himself regarded the crowning close of his work. He died on March 1, 1857 at the age of 67, following an infection with pathogenic germs, most probably caught while trying to recover a skeleton from some sperm whales, stranded on the coasts of Istria. The publication of Heckel's last treatise was taken over by his former student and assistant, Rudolf Kner.

 

Rudolf Kner (1810-1868)

Rudolf Kner, a graduated physician, began to work for the imperial collections in 1836 and became allocated to Heckel as technical help. Only three years later he left to pursue his career at the university in Lvov (Ukraine) as a professor for natural history. In 1849 he took over the chair of zoology in Vienna. However, he always tended the bonds with the scientific fish collection and with ichthyology. Among his most outstanding papers is the one on the family of armoured catfishes, edited in 1853, in which he elaborates on hitherto not examined material from Natterer's gatherings and describes 18 new species. When in 1859 specimens from the expedition with the frigate "Novara" arrived to be worked on, Kner called a young zoologist for help, Franz Steindachner.

 

Franz Steindachner (1834-1919)

After completion of his studies at the legal faculty Franz Steindachner turned to natural sciences. At the suggestion of his friend, geologist and palaeontologist Eduard Suess, he investigated fossil fishes at first. In the course of this work and by dealing with material of the Novara expedition, Steindachner got in touch with the Fish Collection of the Naturalienkabinett. Because of his excellent work he was offered the position of director of the Fish Collection in 1860, a post vacant since Heckel's death in 1857. First collecting trips led him to Spain, Portugal, the Canary Islands and Senegal. Between 1859 and 1868 he published no less than 55 ichthyological articles, amounting to almost 900 pages and thus, within a very short time, established himself as an outstanding ichthyologist.

In recognition of his merits, Louis Agassiz, at that time best known naturalist of America, invited Steindachner in 1868 to accept a post at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA. Steindachner took a two years' leave to consider the offer on the spot. In Cambridge he worked up the collection from the Thayer expedition, particularly South American freshwater fishes, which form - thanks to Natterer's work - an important part of the Viennese collection as well. Following Agassiz's invitation, Steindachner then took part in the Hassler expedition in 1871/72, which circumnavigated South America from Boston to San Francisco. From the enormous yield of this journey - more than 100,000 fish - Steindachner was allowed to take material almost at will for his Viennese collection, and he duly credited Aggasiz for this. Nevertheless he felt a bit used, even exploited, by his famous colleague. He was probably right in foreseeing that, should he stay in Cambridge, he would remain forever in Agassiz's shadow. He feared that Agassiz, slightly prone to vanity, might impede Steindachner's own scientific activities. So he finally refused professorship in Cambridge and, in 1874, returned to Vienna for good. During the years to come Steindachner visited several European museums to study their organisational structures: construction of the new imperial museum-building was in preparation already. In 1886 the move of the ichthyological collection to the new house at the Ringstraße was accomplished and one year later Steindachner was appointed director of the Zoological Department. Foci during the years 1891 to 1898 were the Red Sea and the Mediterranean, where several expeditions on the "Pola", a transport-ship of the navy, were undertaken. In 1898 Steindachner was promoted director of the imperial museum. His last big journey, in 1903, led him to Brazil, where he undertook extensive collecting trips, notwithstanding his advanced age of 69 and heavy fits of malaria. After his retirement in early 1919, he, the "Fischhofrat" ("Fish-Councillor-to-the-Court"), was even allowed to further use his official residence in (!) the Fish Collection. Steindachner died that very year in consequence of pneumonia.

 

Viktor Pietschmann (1881-1956)

After finishing his studies in zoology, Viktor Pietschmann became Steindachner's assistant at the museum in 1905. The same year already he travelled to the Barents Sea and in 1909 he studied deep-sea fishing at Greenland's south coast. Pietschmann's collections from his expeditions to Mesopotamia (1910) and Armenia (1914) are of great importance. In Armenia he was caught in World War I and stayed in Turkey, where he served his time as an officer in the Turkish army. From 1919 to his retirement in 1946 he headed the Fish Collection. In 1927 he spent a year on Hawaii, other collecting trips led him to Romania and Poland. Pietschmann's scientific bequest comprises some 50 publications and many popular-science articles. He died in November 1956.


Pietschmann's death definitely brought to an end the era of important collectors for Vienna's ichthyology. Among other reasons it was the consequences of the Great War that were responsible for this: Austria had lost her access to the sea and thus her navy, heavy blows especially for ichthyology. The economic situation after 1918 as well as the political instability of the time did not exactly provide favourable conditions for adequate science. Moreover, and quite apart from these grounds, the general attitude towards collecting for museums underwent a change. The impossibility of ever being able to achieving collections which could be called complete had long been understood - especially when dealing with groups of such enormous scope as fishes. And, for the first time, the environmental compatibility of catching methods was considered (Steindachner - unthinkable nowadays - still used dynamite for fishing during his expeditions to the Red Sea). Questions about the sense of gargantuan collections arose. Museums were confronted to new tasks. In addition to the classical systematic-taxonomic research the vast field of species conservation opened up. Today ecology, mapping programmes of habitats, red lists of endangered species and securing of proof specimens are essential components of the scope of activities in the Fish Collection.