Wars should stay in museums! (A rough translation of the HGM’s registered slogan).
When it comes to culture Vienna has more than its fair share and is positively bursting with museums, attractions and beautiful architecture. From Schönbrunn, its spectacular royal summer palace with sprawling zoo, to the Lipizzaner Spanish Riding School and opera house. Whilst its music heritage is fizzling away under the surface, with echoes of classical composers such as Mozart, as well as more contemporary singers like Falco. Then there are the delights to tempt your taste buds: the delicious and more-ish Sachertorte chocolate cake, and let’s not forget the scrumptious Wiener Schnitzel with potato salad. As Austria has been a neutral state since 1955 you may be surprised to discover that its capitol city boasts a modest yet impressive military museum.
Situated in the 3rd district at Arsenal 1, near the Belvedere Palace, the museum is just a brisk 5 minute walk through the Schweizergarten park from the Wien Quartier Belvedere train station. You can easily take the S3 train, direction Liesing, from Wien Mitte or Wien Praterstern. After walking past the pond you emerge out into Heeresmuseumstraße road, where the museum’s gate house welcomes you at the end. The gatehouse, or Objekt 1, houses several the Arsenalstuben restaurant, which offers traditional Austrian dishes. If you look carefully into the inner left doorway, you will find some period graffiti, a discrete testimony to its former occupants. The Museum itself is just through the archway and beyond the courtyard. Worth mentioning are the two open air cannon galleries, situated either side of the gate house and viewable at no expense.
An interesting and surprising fact about the museum is that it is managed by the Austrian Ministry of Defence and many of its staff are ex-soldiers. Hopefully being state run will ensure its continued success and development for generations to come.
The imposing neo-gothic 19th Century military barracks was completed in 1856 and was designed by Theophil Hansen, as well as Ludwig Förster and several others. It was officially opened as a museum by Emperor Franz Joseph in 1891. During the Second World War management was briefly taken over by the Germans for the duration, when the main building suffered damage. Now the scars are barely noticeable. Open daily from 9am till 5pm, standard admission costs €7.00 per person, with under 19s admitted free. The first Sunday of the month is free to all visitors. Special reduced rates also are available as well as guided tours. The main entrance has wheelchair access and a lift to the upper floor. All the galleries have barrier free access, with an additional lift in the WW1 gallery. The only exception is the small terrace platform in the Navy gallery. Furthermore, all galleries have some type of seating, should you need to take the weight off for a moment, although the interwar/WW2 gallery lacks seating as such but instead offers two small cinema areas where you can sit down.
Guarding each end of the museum’s long building are two Saab fighter jets which are worth a quick look, before entering the museum. Once past the ticket counter you are welcomed into an impressive and beautifully ornate entrance hall, with 17th and 18th Century aristocratic military figures supporting columns and a vaulted echoing ceiling, of marble, natural and painted stone. To the side are lockers and unattended coat racks, while the only museum toilets are situated either side of the staircase. The staircase leads up to the first-floor galleries. There are four main galleries in the museum, each presented differently projecting a unique feel. They are clean and spacious and apart from guided tours or other visitors are relatively quiet.
I always start my visit by walking through the gift shop / cafe on the left, through to the post Interwar / WW2 gallery. The gift shop serves as the seating area for the cafe and sells such things as books, postcards, models, toys, souvenirs, CDs, and mugs.
Moving into the gallery, which stretches out in front, the ceiling lowers and the light dims. The exhibits appear a little too moody for my tastes, although they are not shadowed. Perhaps this is to build ambiance or for preservation purposes. The gallery tells the turbulent story of the 1st Republic after the fall of the ruling Habsburg dynasty, through wonderful artefacts transitioning towards the end of the Second World War. The large glass display cabinets are truly a feast for your eyes, with uniforms, helmets, equipment, and weapons. From all sides as well as the home front. I have banged my head many a time hoping for a closer look, forgetting the glass panel! There are also several displays that you can walk around and get closer to, such as the Kubelwagen, Kettenkrad, 88 gun, and PAK 38, while above you hangs a Stork reconnaissance aircraft. This concludes with the iconic 4 in a jeep, documenting the immediate post-war period when the city was occupied by the Allies and an international force of British, French, US, and Soviet policed the 1st district. Naturally, the captions are in German but the main text is in both English and German. Many of the captions and descriptions in the museum are in German, but it does provide complimentary multi-language information sheets available at the start of each gallery, which do explain the history of that time period.
Walking through you enter a gallery dedicated to Austria’s naval heritage, charting its 200 year history. Despite Austria’s current land-locked status, up until the First World War the Austrian navy was large and impressive. A highlight of the collection is the damaged conning tower of an Austrian submarine which was destroyed in 1918 by the Italians, together with related artefacts recovered from the seabed. It is particularly strong in helping to re-enforce the human story aside of the many uniforms, flags, figure heads, and detailed scale models of once great imperial ships on display.
If however, you turn right from the main entrance you will enter a small exhibition dedicated to the museum’s own history, detailing its roots and journey to the present day. The area is spacious with several glass display stands to walk around, although the room also appears dimly lit as well as the items.
Leading on to the Emperor Franz Joseph gallery, which is packed full with beautiful and colourful headdress and tunics, as well as rifles and swords. There are also a few stand alone artillery pieces to admire, but not to touch. This then leads you chronologically through to 1914 and perhaps the most poignant and thought provoking of all the museum’s exhibits. It is certainly the most unique thing to see whilst on your visit, being the actual uniform worn by Franz Ferdinand when he was assassinated, as well as the pistols used by the assailants and the actual bullet damaged Gräf Stift car. Being in close proximity to these items which still hold a huge historical significance, from an event that sparked World War One and changed the course of history, is certainly food for thought.
From there you enter the recently modernised First World War gallery. At first you may think that the gallery is dark and too atmospheric, but the path is well lit and indeed so are the cased exhibits which line it. It is well presented and the space opens up as the path unwinds. The room feels spacious despite the humongous artillery piece, small trench display and WW1 airplane hanging from the ceiling. The descriptions give an overview of the events are interesting and informative, whilst the gallery shows the many aspects of WW1, from the different combatants to the medical side. Some of the pieces and in particular the solid steel bunker roof is indeed impressive. It is certainly interesting and informative to see the conflict from the opposite perspective.
Back in the foyer, if you stroll up the red carpet to the upper floor you suddenly find yourself below the museum’s iconic dome, in a beautiful, decorated reception area, used for presentations and events. To your left is a gallery focused on the 17th Century. Upon entering the furniture and colours are a mix of dark wood, red walls and white arched ceilings, giving it a warm welcoming feeling, which the smell of wood and gentle creaking wooden floorboards further enhance. The room is light and spacious, showing a mix of paintings, suits of armour and arms, from pikes to primitive flintlock muskets. The gallery gradually progresses to the Ottoman Turks who threatened the city of Vienna showing banners and uniforms from both sides. My only niggle is the Germanic font used in the captions was hard to read. Being in an Austria museum I can’t complain too much about the absence of English captions or the font choice, but through the valuable handouts and in the more moderner galleries the museum does appear to be thinking about its more international visitors.
Moving across the reception area again and chronologically in time to the last gallery. You enter a well-lit space with neutral coloured walls and a high ceiling. The display cabinets are more modern than the previous ones and are a mix of glass and white panels. This gallery focuses on the period from the 18th / 19th Century, up until 1848, and in particular its connection to Napoleon and the famous Field Marshal Radetzky. A highlight, aside from the many paintings, arms, and beautiful Napoleonic era uniforms, is the 1700s hot air balloon.
On certain weekends throughout the year you may also be lucky enough to get into the museum for free, when there are themed events in the grounds. These are accessible via the café. Past themes have included the middle ages and vintage military vehicles, with costumed re-enactors, interesting stands and displays. A mention should also be made to the special exhibition on Austria’s peace keeping missions, which is also accessible via the café exit, in a temporary tented exhibition. Younger visitors are welcome to try on certain articles of military uniform. The area immediately outside the cafe is also home to a row of post-war amour used by the Austrians, including some British, US specimens.
Out of all the exhibits in the museum it is hard to single out a particular item as a favourite, as it changes from visit to visit. Perhaps at the moment it is the 4 in a Jeep.
Vienna’s HGM is one of my favourite museums and one which never fails to disappoint, time and time again. Its galleries are clearly presented, especially the First World War section while its overall collection is indeed impressive and unique. Should you ever visit Vienna and have a spare rainy morning or afternoon, or indeed whole day, then you can’t go far wrong with the HGM, whether or not you are a military collector, historian, enthusiast, or simply being dragged along to keep your other half quiet!
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Olivier C Dorrell is the author of British Officer’s Peak Caps of the Second World War (Schiffer Books, 2014) and is the Webmaster of the Worcestershire Militaria Museum, virtual museum. He is interested in art and history, military history in particular, and is a keen visitor and supporter of museums and the unique experiences they offer.