Visualizing Science

Nineteenth-century natural history museums can be understood as ‘visual storytellers’. Scientific knowledge had to be translated into images to reach out to heterogeneous audiences.

This research focus, led by Stefanie Jovanovic-Kruspel, has shown how in the ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’ or total piece of art of the Naturhistorisches Museum Vienna, architecture and furnishings were used to convey the narratives of the original exhibition.  The museum’s founding Director Ferdinand von Hochstetter (1829-1884) planned the museum as a ‘walk-in-textbook’ on evolution. No other museum of the nineteenth-century addresses Darwin’s theory of evolution as directly as the NHM Vienna. Even so, the representation of scientific content in the framework of the architecture is only one form of didactic visual communication. Natural history museums were and still are ‘laboratories’ for the creation of science visualizations – like models, illustrations and reconstructions. Museums like the NHM Vienna are therefore still underestimated as sites of scientific artwork.

Exterior of a large museum building

Building on her work on the NHM Vienna, and in collaboration with John Holmes from the University of Birmingham and Charlotte Bigg from the Museum nationale d’Histoire naturelle, Jovanovic-Kruspel is now taking this further to consider the conceptions of evolution and prehistory articulated through sculpture, painting and architectural decoration in the gardens and museums of the Jardin des plantes in Paris. 

Image: © NHM Vienna (photograph: K. Kracher)