Coffins, Culture & Caramel Chocolate for Everyone

For the 11th year, thousands of art lovers indulge in the cultural heritage of Vienna at the “Long Night of Museums”

Visitors at the Museum of Natural History | Photo: Hannah Stadlober

To some, art is to be enjoyed in peace and quiet, preferably alone, where you can take in the atmosphere of the place, the emotions and ideas being triggered. On this standard, the idea of spending long hours in over-crowded galleries, rushing from one museum to the next, impatiently waiting in line may not seem very appealing. During one night in October, however, people abandon their inhibitions and flock in masses to Vienna’s annual “Long Night of Museums,” where museums and galleries in Austrian cities open their doors from 6 p.m. until 1 a.m. and attract by far their biggest crowds of the year.

Since the Austrian Broadcasting Service ORF started the initiative in 2000, more than three million people have seized the opportunity to enjoy art until late into the night for the bargain price of 13 euros for adults and 11 for students – a kind of “all you can eat” smorgesbord of art for just a couple of euros more than a single museum would usually cost. What started in 1997 as a program to promote museums and galleries in Berlin soon turned into a great success story in over a dozen cities across Europe. In Austria, some 680 institutions take part and with other fields copying the idea (“Long Night of Churches”, “Long Night of Research” etc.).

This year, our group of friends was eager to take part in this grand outing. We met in a café at the Museumsquartier and started to meticulously plan our nocturnal  tour. We were shooting for a mix of old and new, the traditional and the unconventional, the long-standing and the unknown. There were three of us – an Austrian who had Vienna in her pocket, a German who had just moved from Geneva, and a Serb who had been in Austria for only a year.

Our first stop was the Prunksaal, the magnificent Baroque Reading Room of the National Library, planned by the famous Austrian court architect Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach in the 18th century.

“Do you see the doorknob over there?” a friendly librarian asked us, as we were wandering through the majestic halls of the library. “It leads to a secret chamber located behind the book shelves. The Habsburgs used to use it.” For unsanctioned reading? Secret assignations?  We were never to learn. But suddenly, we could see them: shadowy figures, swathed in long gowns, sneaking through the hidden doors and then disappearing into the darkness, the clacking of their shoes on the marble floor fading in the distance.

Leaving the Habsburgs to their books, we decided to abandon our schedule in favor of more spontaneity and made our way to the Albertina for the “Picasso: Peace and Freedom” exhibition.

The line seemed too long at first, but it dissolved amazingly fast. After no longer than 15 minutes, we were marveling at some of the painter’s finest works, tracing his political commitment as an avowed communist from the times of the Spanish Civil War to the Cuban Missile Crisis.

To take in a little of Picasso’s affection for pigeons, we missed the “Cultural History of Kissing” at the Upper Belvedere. Once inside, however, we decided to still have a look around. Here, in its majestic halls, the Allied forces signed the Austrian State Treaty in 1955 hailed by Foreign Minister Leopold Figl with the words “Österreich ist frei,” and as church bells rang out all over the city, he walked out onto the balcony in the rain –  with foreign ministers Vyacheslav Molotov of the USSR, John Foster Dulles of the U.S., Harald MacMillan of Great Britain, and Antoine Pinay of France – and held up the document to the cheering crowd of thousands carpeting the gardens below.

And on we wandered, through galleries of works by Klimt and Schiele that more than made up for the missed lecture on kissing, and Jacques-Louis David’s Napoleon Crossing the Alps, even though well-known from the covers of our history books, enchanted us once more.

“This, I want to hang over my bed,” said David, the German, in excited amazement.

After so much art and history, it was time for something different and now joined by four other friends, we made our way to the burial museum of “Wiener Bestattungen,” Austria’s largest funeral home that has organized more than two million funerals since its founding 103 years ago.

Entering the gates of the funeral home, the strains of “Time of My Life” were floating out over loudspeakers, candles and torches were flickering and the atmosphere was, in a word, weird. But the halls of the museum were too narrow, and actually there was not much to be seen. The magic was in the activities outdoors.

Four coffins in the corners of a garage-like room were exposed for visitors to try them out. It was crowded, but not everybody standing in the line was courageous enough to lie down. Many hesitated when asked, politely turning their heads away. Of those who did it, the impressions were varied. A blonde girl stretched out as casually as one would lie on the couch watching TV. An elderly Austrian refused to have the cover lowered, her ginger hair falling over the edges.

Finally, it was our Serbian friend’s turn. The coffin looked comfortable: white satin, the cover edged with lace, with more layers at the bottom – almost like a mattress and a pillow. She closed her eyes, hands crossed on the chest.

“I could still see some blinking because the light was extremely hard,” she explained.

Then dark.

“It was cold and sinister. I wasn’t part of this world anymore. Do people actually hear the voices of those standing by their graves?”

This vulnerability added to the fear of darkness, making her skin crawl, she added later. Then she was ready to jump out – six seconds and familiar faces again. Perhaps it is only dead silence that remains when you die. Still, the opportunity, as bizarre as it seems, was too enticing to resist. Once you are dead, you will never be able to get out of that damn coffin to talk about your experience. This we did indeed.

After this near-death experience, a free funeral feast was exactly what we needed – beer, sparkling water and Frankfurter with mustard and bread.

As we tried to decide on the next stop, the arguments began. Tina Modotti at the Kunsthaus, a guided tour of “Greek and Roman Antiquities” at the Art History Museum, Frida Kahlo at the Bankaustria Kunstforum or “Dialogue in the Dark?”

Lesson learnt: the more people, the harder the decision-making – especially at an event like this with an abundance of exhibitions that makes it almost impossible to make a choice.

Eventually, we chose the Museum of Natural History. Strolling around in its majestic halls, holding a glass of Sturm, a partially fermented grape must, in one hand, and a camera in the other, we felt as if we were in the Hollywood comedy Night at the Museum where the inanimate suddenly came to life. The stuffed lion in one of the exhibits looked so alive that we were just about to make bets as to the realness of its fur, when a guard approached:

“No drinks inside, please.” We seized the opportunity to inquire about the origins of the lion. The fur was real, he confirmed. “We got it from a collector in Innsbruck.”

Finally, we were yearning for something sweet: The Chocolate Museum was going to be our last stop. Fortunately, the ORF had organized shuttle buses connected to the subway lines, allowing us to reach our final destination – Heindl Chocolate World – well before closing.

The line at this popular museum was much longer than we had expected. It was past midnight and there were still about 200 chocolate addicts waiting for their fix. We were determined not to leave without tasting the delicious-looking sweets and dipping waffles in the cascades of chocolate flowing from three fountains. Tired and exhausted, we agreed that the chocolate was good but not amazing, and that the samples were simply too small.

Nonetheless, the “Long Night of Museums” in its second decade is a continuing success story, attracting 443,800 visitors, slightly more than in the previous years. Vienna ranked first with more than 200,000 participants, most of whom visited the Albertina, the Museum of Natural Science and the Museum of Art History, followed by Salzburg with 46,000 museum goers and Carinthia with 43,700, according to ORF statistics.

From hats, coffee, shoes and champagne to marzipan, music, motorbikes and mortuaries, Vienna, though, was hard to beat.

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