Batman (loved the movie The Dark Knight by the way), not Superman, was ever my favorite superhero along with some of the lesser knowns such as Green Lantern and Green Arrow – because something about their very quirkiness intrigued me. And yet here I am invoking the man from Krypton in the title of this post.

Walk around the mineral rooms of the Naturalhistoriche Museum in Vienna and perhaps the reason will make itself clear – crystal clear in fact, if you’ll pardon the pun. Large-fortress like formations of crystal salt, brought over by the Emperor’s explorers, are given the pride of place in the show cases of these rooms, which number 4 in total and take up an entire wing of the ground floor of this impressively huge museum in fact. Each room is filled with rows and rows of glass-covered display tables with the samples in them arranged alphabetically. According to the museum’s literature, the museum boasts the largest such collection in the world, and I can well believe it. Cataloging the collection must have taken forever! Some samples that caught my imagination in June…

In larger showcases around the room are bigger finds, including both natural and man-made of the ingenious and mundane uses of rocks. This is where I found the large fortress-like formations of salt crystals. One reason for the special abundance of these fortresses must be the fact that Austria is home to these structures. Salzburg (literally the “salt town”) is named as such for a reason. And as I found out just yesterday while out by the Traunsee (Lake Traun) the economy of the region of the country used to (and still does?) depend on salt. So while many explorers were off in exotic landscapes discovering geodes – the museum owns one that weighs about 730 lbs, trust me it’s huge!) – and other cool stuff, some worked closer to home and brought in just as much. Not that the salt crystals were confined to the region. They had some pillars (might the biblical Lot’s daughters be entrapped in Vienna perchance?) hailing from as far away as India if I recall right. I wonder that these things didn’t melt during travel!

I never made much farther than beyond mineral rooms but I should also mention a few other interesting details about the museum. The building itself was constructed in the later half the 19th century under the orders of Emperor Franz-Josef I (husband of the iconic Empress Elizabeth – Sissi) and is a mirror image twin to the Kunsthistoriches Museum (KHM) that stands across from it Maria-Theriesin Platz. Though very much like palaces in their style and décor, these museums were never intended or used as royal residences, and may in fact, be the only palaces in Vienna to to have never served in that capacity – certainly all the other sites of museums – the Hofburg, Belvedere, Albertina and Schonnbrunn were residences at one time or another. Though both architects were Austrian, Gottfried Semper and Karl von Hasenauer, the buildings are very Renaissance Italian in style, a deliberate reference to the epoch when the arts and sciences were believed to have reached their zenith.

Franz-Josef I may have had these museums built but it was his great (x2 ?) Grand-daddy Emperor Franz I, husband of Maria Theresa who amassed the specimens – not just of rocks but of animals, birds skeletons galore – that form the core of the collections. He began the collection by buying off a Florentine nobleman but added to it immensely by sending out expeditions. In the main foyer is a painting (of either him or one of his equally obsessed successors) meant to show off his love of knowledge, exploration etc.

The organization of the museum is neat – beginning with the minerals on the lower right wing, everything is arranged in an ascending spiral corresponding to their evolutionary stage. A single room at the top was reserved for special exhibits – on the day I went it was devoted to some spectacular underwater photography, which (schaade but rightfully) I was not allowed to take photos of. I’ve also (again schaade, but this time wrongfully) forgotten the artist’s name.

I wasn’t able to visit the Dodo’s skeleton but one other room I did visit was on the 2nd floor directly next to the cafeteria (though that was not the reason) devoted to microbes and microscopes, and named after the philosopher-biologist Haeckel. The windows of this room are adorned with magnified images of microscopic critters… Also in this room is a small theatre where they have live demos of projections of a 3-D microscope that we get to watch with 3-D glasses on. Though the commentary was in German (and I by that time too tired to absorb most of the info) I did enjoy (in an eeyew! sort of way) watching engorged bloodworms swimming my way!

P.S. An interesting thought just occurred – product of free association I suppose. If the salt crystals in Vienna’s NHM are reminiscent of Superman’s fortress, then the mineral room of Natural History Museum in New York surely evokes the batcave – a basement room, dark and mysterious, full of unexpected treasures for those who go looking or better still, stumble upon it unawares. It was my first favorite in this genre, and will always hold a special tug on my loyalties. Just like Batman himself.

PPS. Another thought – observation actually – to jam in here regarding aptness of the title: Solitude is not exactly a feature of most museums, indeed nothing could be farther from the truth, as my trip to the Hofburg’s Scahtzkammer (Imperial treasury) bore ample witness to a few days ago. But on the particular day in June when I went to the NHM I was in a relative haven of solitude, likely the product of the fussball mania. Also, it may just be that the place is massive enough to accommodate veritable tons of us tourists and still give us plenty of space!

PPPS. Meanwhile news from back in the batcave: nooo… this is NOT Kryptonite!

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