The Beginning

In 1748, Emperor Franz Stephan von Lothringen (1708-1765), the husband of Maria Theresia (1717-1780), purchased the natural history collection of the Florentine Johann Ritter von Baillou (1684-1758). The 30,000 objects in the collection, unique in all of Europe, featured corals, crustaceans, mussels, and snails, as well as minerals and fossils. In 1749, Baillou was named first director of this natural history "cabinet", which was maintained as a private museum by the Emperor. His assignment was to order and display the objects based on scientific criteria. During this period, the first overseas expedition commissioned by the Emperor led Nicolaus Freiherr von Jacquin (1724-1817) to the West Indies for four years.

After her husband's death in 1766, Maria Theresia bequeathed this extensive collection to the State. The objects were displayed in the Hofburg Palace and opened to the public for the first time. Two sources provided the core for the vertebrate department: the hunting trophies of Habsburg princes and the collection of native mammals and birds purchased by Emperor Franz II (1768-1835) in 1793 from Joseph Natterer (1754-1823, father of Johann [1787-1843] and Joseph Natterer [1786-1852]), a falconer at the Imperial falconry center in Laxenburg near Vienna.

The year 1796 marked the founding of the natural science collection as a separate "cabinet": Kaiserlich-Königliches Physikalisch-Astronomisches Kunst- und Natur-Thier-Cabinet (Imperial and Royal Physico-Astronomical Art and Nature Animal Cabinet) under the direction of abbot Simon Eberle (1756-1827). His concept for a broadly popular exhibition was criticized at the time as being a spectacle. Using paintings, models, and, in part, poorly mounted animals, he attempted to depict natural environments such as tropical forests and steppe landscapes. Although subject to criticism, this form of exhibition was the first to use dioramas.

Abbot Andreas Stütz (1747-1806) took over the collection in 1801. He displayed mammals, birds, reptiles, and fishes according to systematic criteria. In 1806, after abbot Stütz unexpectedly passed away, Emperor Franz II entrusted Carl von Schreibers (1775-1852) with the directorship of the cabinet. Von Schreibers, a physician and instructor of zoology, successfully transformed the "Vereinigte Kaiserlich-Königliche Naturalien-Cabinete" (United Imperial and Royal Natural History Cabinets) into a scientific research institution. Thanks to especially capable staff members, such as Joseph Natterer, Leopold Fitzinger (1802-1884), and Johann Jacob Heckel (1790-1857), as well as to comprehensive collecting in the framework of carefully planned expeditions (e.g., the Brazilian expedition of 1817-1835), and contributions from private persons, the collection expanded enormously.

The new Kaiserlich-Königliches Naturhistorisches Hofmuseum (Imperial and Royal Court Museum of Natural History) on the Burgring Boulevard was inaugurated by Emperor Franz Joseph (1830-1916) on 10 August 1889, 18 years after the cornerstone was laid. This new building had become necessary to adequately house and display the ever increasing inventory; despite a series of annexes, the space in the Hofburg Palace had become too small to accommodate the collections. Today, more than 100 years later, this building still serves as the home of the entire collections. Its facade bears the inscription: "To the realm of nature and its exploration. Emperor Franz Joseph I."


The Herpetological Collection