One night in Vienna's museums

By Jenna Hand

A ramble through the many museums of Vienna reveals an enthralling peep show of curiosities for Jenna Hand.

The re-usable coffin instigated in 1784 by Emperor Josef II on display at the Funeral Museum in Vienna, Austria. Picture / Supplied
The re-usable coffin instigated in 1784 by Emperor Josef II on display at the Funeral Museum in Vienna, Austria. Picture / Supplied

The reusable coffin in Vienna's Funeral Museum is unlikely to be on any tourist's must-see list. In a city known for old-world extravagance and grandeur, more exalted relics dominate: Klimt's gold-saturated masterpiece, The Kiss, at Belvedere Palace, the Monets and Renoirs at the Albertina and the Kunsthistorisches Museum's moody Rembrandts and Rubens.

But among Vienna's many museums are collections ranging from the creative to the downright bizarre, some of which surely began life only when someone's eccentric hobby became an eye-widening obsession.

The city's depositories of endoscopes, magic sets, coin-operated machines and their ilk ordinarily do not attract crowds, but that changes on the Long Night of Museums.

On the first Saturday in October, visitors pay a flat €13 ($20) fee to descend on as many exhibitions as they can between 6pm and 1am. This year's event attracted more than 200,000 people to 121 institutions.

Here are the best of the quirky bunch.

Museum of Contraception and Abortion

The ancient Egyptians thought women could avoid pregnancy with a pessary of crocodile dung. Whether that was due to its conception-combating properties or because suitors bolted from the pong is unclear. Later, reusable condoms were fashioned out of fish bladders and lamb appendixes. The latter are still produced by a US company that sources its "skin-to-skin" sheaths from New Zealand lambs (they don't guard against STDs and are banned in Europe).

The second half of this educational museum documents the history and practice of abortion with sensitivity and pragmatism. Displays are in German but excellent English explanations are available by calling a number that turns your phone into an audio guide (use a local SIM to avoid a nasty bill).

Museum fur Verhutung und Schwangerschaftsabbruch, Mariahilfer Gurtel 37, 1st floor, 1150. Ph 0043 699 178 17804, here.

The Museum of Chimney Sweepers

Master chimney sweep Gunter Stern has been peering into people's fireplaces for more than five decades.

The tiny museum he opened with his private collection of knick-knacks 26 years ago pays homage to the people who keep Vienna's hearths in working order. Sweeps were traditionally regarded as bringers of good luck and the displays include an inordinate number of rosy-cheeked figurines kitted out in traditional black suits and carrying pink pigs, another luck symbol. Stern says modern-day sweeps have had to adapt to technological advances and do more than clean chimneys, but the title remains. "Gas heater inspector" isn't quite so evocative.

Rauchfangkehrermuseum, Klagbaumgasse 4, 1040. Phone: 0043 1 5145 02275, visit the website here.

Original Vienna Snow Globe Museum

An empty snow globe shell looks remarkably like a light globe. Remarkable, that is, until you learn that's basically what it is. In 1900, mechanic Erwin Perzy experimented with water and rice grains in an attempt to improve on Edison's electric light bulb and discovered the effect was rather pretty.

And so the snow globe was born accidentally. His grandson, Erwin Perzy III, still manufactures the ornaments at the same house in Vienna's 17th district, also the site of a small store-cum-museum. It includes a photo of a custom-made globe containing wedding rings, a Statue of Liberty and two female figures, which an American customer wanted to smash over her cheating husband's head. Perzy strongly advised against the assault and understands that while the globe remained intact, the marriage did not.

Original Vienna Snow Globe Museum, Schumanngasse 87, 1170. Ph 0043 1 486 4341, visit the website here.

The Third Man Sewer Tour

The operator's warning not to take this tour if you have an open wound suggests a slimier, more infectious experience than actually awaits those who descend into the portion of Vienna's underground made famous by the 1949 film. Guide Christopher Timmermann points out the sites featured in the chase scene and says only 20 per cent of it was filmed in the tunnels (the rest in a London studio) and that Orson Welles refused to take part.

Apparently, it was too much for his olfactories and a stunt double did the job. More than five decades on, the place is surprisingly inoffensive considering the foul soup that washes through it.

Dritte Mann Tour, Karlsplatz-Girardipark opposite Cafe Museum, 1010. Tours May-October. Ph 0043 1 4000 3033, visit the website here.

Funeral Museum

Pallbearers' outfits, hearses and urns are among the displays in this peculiar, but passionately curated, museum. It's also the home of that reusable coffin with trapdoor base that Emperor Joseph II advocated in 1784 as a way to economically bury the dead (the commoners rejected it).

There's also a 19th century device invented to assuaged people's fears of being buried alive by enabling the not-so-dead to alert an undertaker to their untimely internment.

Bestattungsmuseum, Goldeggasse 19, 1040.
Ph 0043 1 760 702 7500, visit the website here.

Dialogue in the Dark

Visitors to this outstanding museum don't actually see anything. It's an experience designed to simulate blindness and is unnervingly effective.

Guides with vision impairments lead their cane-wielding guests through exhibits that test sensory perception, such as crossing a busy "road" and walking through a replica forest.

The opportunity to sit in a pitchblack bar and ask questions at the end takes the experience to a deeper, more personal level. If you only do one quirky museum in Vienna, make it this mind-expanding one.

Dialog im Dunkeln, Freyung 6, 1010. Ph 0043 1 890 6060, visit the website here.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: All of Emirates' three daily flights from New Zealand provide direct connections thourgh Dubai, with daily services to Vienna. Emirates currently has early-bird fares on sale to Vienna for 2013 from $2590 economy return.

Accommodation: Hotel Vienna combines old-fashioned charm with some decent prices.

Further information: For details of Vienna's festival and events calendar visit the website.

- NZ Herald

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