the meteorite collection

The Natural History Museum of Vienna owns one of the largest meteorite collections in the world. With over 7,000 catalogued objects (which represent about 2,400 different meteorites), it lies in third place, behind the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. (USA), and the National Institute of Polar Research in Tokyo (Japan) which has one of the largest collection of meteorites from Antarctica.

 

The Hall 5 of the Natural History Museum contains the largest meteorite display in the world. Currently, after a thorough renovation and modernization of the hall (in 2012), there are about 1,100 meteorites on display (including 650 different meteorites, consisting of 300 falls and 350 finds).

 

History of the collection

 

Not only is the Viennese collection large, it also has the longest history of all meteorite collections and was and remains an important research center for meteorites and associated impact rocks. Meteorites were already collected in Vienna when they were still regarded as earthly phenomena (meteorite ~ aerolite ~ air stone). Of course, one could always find materials in the wonder cabinets of the rulers which had fallen to Earth and which, depending on the circumstances, were regarded as lucky or unlucky talismans. Although some cases of matter falling to Earth had been observed by hundreds of witnesses, the scientific authorities of the day regarded these as somewhat irregular earthly phenomena. During this period of total disregard for meteorites, two masses of iron fell to Earth in Hraschina near Zagreb, Croatia. The fall occurred on 26 May 1751, only a few years after Emperor Franz I had acquired the Baillou natural history collection (1748). The Emperor ordered a report on the fall from the episcopal syndicate in Zagreb. The report was delivered to the court in July, together with the iron masses. The most important piece was incorporated in the Imperial Treasury, and from there, it soon came to be included in the Imperial Natural History Collection. The 39 kg iron mass from Hraschina became the founding piece of the Viennese meteorite collection.

 

Protocol of Bishop Klobuczezky and Curate-General Wolfgang Kukuljevic & the Hraschina meteorite.

 

The Protocol of Bishop Klobuczezky and Curate-General Wolfgang Kukuljevic listed many eye-witness reports in connection with the incident and the accompanying fire ball. This protocol later became an important document for Franz Güssmann and E.F.F. Chladni, who, on the basis of such reports, as well as because of the fact that newly fallen meteorites are covered with a fresh fusion crust, were of the opinion that these masses originated from outer space.

 

Their argument might have remained purely an intellectual exercise if the scientific opinion of the times (led by the Académie Française) had not changed. The main event that led to such a change was the meteor shower of L’Aigle (26 April 1803) in France. A member of the Académie, the physicist Jean-Baptiste Biot, interviewed numerous witnesses and subsequently published a detailed report of his findings. Thenard and Vauquelin, along with the British chemist Howard, examined the stones. Meteorites have been acknowledged as extra-terrestrial objects ever since that time.

 

Map of L'Aigle meteorite strewn field (Biot, 1803) & views of a large piece of l'Aigle meteorite.

 

Shortly after this time, the Viennese collection, which was under the supervision of Abbé Stütz, comprised 7 meteorites: Hraschina (40 kg); Krasnojarsk (2.5 kg); Tabor (2.7 kg); Steinbach (1.1 kg); Eichstädt (126 g); L’Aigle (1.1 kg), and Mauerkirchen (429 g).

 

Stütz’s successor, Carl von Schreibers, was very interested in meteorites. He studied them intensively and inspired many of his contemporaries to investigate them. Among others, his friend Alois von Widmanstätten, Director of the Imperial Factory Products Cabinet, began to study the extra-terrestrial iron. He described the so-called "Widmanstätten figures", named after him. Schreibers and Widmanstätten also worked together with other renowned scientists of the time in order to discover more about meteorites.

 

Carl von Schreibers & original platelet of the “Widmanstätten pattern”.

 

The chemist Martin Heinrich Klaproth made analyses in Berlin of samples from Vienna, which were the first analyses ever made of stone and iron meteorites. Jöns Jakob Berzelius and Friedrich Wöhler also co-operated on this project. Carl von Schreibers can be regarded as the founder of meteoric science and he construed the study of meteoritic science in the same way as it is followed today, i.e., on the basis of interdisciplinary research. Today, all natural sciences interact closely in order to extract the cryptic messages from the solar nebula carried by the meteorites.

 

The collection grew quickly, also under Schreibers’ successors Paul Partsch, Moriz Hoernes, and Gustav Tschermak. Tschermak was particularly keen and published many research papers, as well as a wonderful book summarizing his observations.

 

Paul Partsch (left), Moriz Hoernes (center), and Gustav Tschermak (right).

 

His successors Aristides Brezina and Friedrich Berwerth also continued studying meteorites. This intensive study resulted in a major growth of the collection. At the turn of the century, it comprised more than 600 different meteorites, many of which were main specimens.

 

Aristides Brezina (left) and Friedrich Berwerth (right).

 

The outbreak of the first World War and the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire brought these research activities to an abrupt halt. Austria was fighting for survival and the curators were fighting to save their collections. Modest research activities took place under the leadership of Hermann Michel, but these were rudely interrupted by the second World War. Again, the major activity was confined to maintaining existing collections. Michel was able to preserve everything virtually intact throughout the war. However, the end of the war was not the end of it all. The occupying forces expressed interest and again, it was a battle to maintain possession of the collections. Hermann Michel had to resist Russian officers and Hubert Scholler together with Alfred Schiener had to repulse strong attacks made by the American side and were successful in keeping the collection intact.

 

Hermann Michel (left), Hubert Scholler (center), and Alfred Schiener (right).

 

The meteorite collection only began to grow again in the 1960s-1970s. The collection came to life after the extension of the laboratories, and the meteorites in the collection were again used intensively for research purposes. Under the supervision of Gero Kurat, a budget for purchases permitted the acquisition of select contemporary falls and discoveries. A large fund-raising drive organized by the "Friends of the Natural History Museum of Vienna" resulted in the acquisition of the "Second Huss Collection of Meteorites" from the USA - the first acquisition of this magnitude in the history of the museum. This collection of 125 meteorites, many of which are main pieces, partly made up for the long war years, during which no new items were acquired. Lately, two further collections of meteorite finds from the Sahara have been added, which constitute very important statistical data on the falls of meteorites during the last 100,000 years. These collections also contain several rare types of meteorites. In 1997, the historically valuable meteorite collection of Johann G. Neumann was acquired. Neumann had discovered the "Neumann bands" meteoritic kamacite. After the retirement of Gero Kurat, in late 2003, Franz Brandstätter was appointed curator of the meteorite collection. More recently, in 2011, Ludovic Ferrière was appointed co-curator of the meteorite collection, contributing significantly to the preparation of the new presentation of the meteorite collection and to the reorganization of the collection according to modern standards. During the last ten years, several new meteorites were added to the collection, with notably in 2012, the purchase of a 908,7 g stone of the martian meteorite Tissint, a unique acquisition that was made possible using funds from the estate of Oskar Ermann.

 

Gero Kurat (left), Franz Brandstätter (center), and Ludovic Ferrière (right).

 

 

Literature on the meteorite collection and on meteorites in general

 

Brandstätter, F., Ferrière, L. & Köberl, C. (2012): Meteoriten - Zeitzeugen der Entstehung des Sonnensystems / Meteorites - Witnesses of the origin of the solar system. Verlag des Naturhistorischen Museums & Edition Lammerhuber, 270 pp. (bilingual).