Touching the Middle Ages

Experiencing the past at ZOOM Children’s Museum

Simple materials are used creatively to engage young minds | Photo: ZOOM Kindermuseum/

Simple materials are used creatively to engage young minds | Photo: ZOOM Kindermuseum/

The heavy, bright red and blue curtains part, and a horde of children bursts through the double doors and on into the Middle Ages – passing through a time warp into a transformed world, familiar yet very far away.

Before their parents have even gathered their bags and climbed down from the ampitheatre steps, two young “knights” have already mounted their wooden horses to try their hand at jousting.

Some have signed on to work in a shop, whilst others design a rosette for a cathedral window.

The current exhibition at ZOOM, the children’s museum, offers 6 – 12-year-olds the chance to experience life in the Middle Ages with all senses: We smell the wood, we touch quill pens and chain mail, we see pictures which decorated medieval manuscripts, and we taste honey which was the only sweetener available at the time.

There are very, very few glass cases and hardly any explanatory labels here – this is about the experience.

In the apothecary’s shop, children grind their own medicinal tea with pestle and mortar, and in the castle they can listen to a constipated knight’s tale of medieval latrines. There are robes, tunics and dresses to try on, and a dark tunnel where they look for iron ore.

After recent exhibitions on family, money, and food, this is the museum’s first exhibition on a historical period.

“Children are fascinated by knights and princesses,” says curator Christian Ganzer, and often come with prior knowledge. This group already knew about castles and jousting, and that knights had assistants called squires, who aspired to be knights themselves one day. It’s a theme alive in fiction and film, and in a country like Austria, in the world around them.

“The origins of many everyday things reach back into the Middle Ages,” Ganzer said. “If we walk through modern cities with open eyes, we encounter many traces of the past.”

Today the Middle Ages is everywhere in popular culture. The HBO series Game of Thrones is set in the fictional medieval kingdom of Westeros. J.R.R. Tolkien’s stories of Middle Earth – such as The Lord of the Rings – are perennials as are the tales of King Arthur, Robin Hood or Joan of Arc. The world of fairy-tales is medieval, as are games set in faux-medieval universes, such as Dungeons & Dragons or World of Warcraft.

Hands-on, armour on: kids joust and wear courtly attire | Photo: ZOOM Kindermuseum/

Hands-on, armour on: kids joust and wear courtly attire | Photo: ZOOM Kindermuseum/


Over 25 years ago, in an essay called “Dreaming the Middle Ages”, Umberto Eco listed 10 uses of “the Medieval” in modern Western culture – from the “romantic” Middle Ages – chivalric codes of honour and languid pre-Raphaelite beauties, to the “barbaric” – brutal wars and rough manners as a sign of masculinity; from their use in national identities to their appearance as a pretext in opera plots.

The adults on hand also mentioned knights and castles, but most think of the period as brutal, when life was very hard, and very short, plagued with disease and violence.

There are the “good” and the “bad” Middle Ages, the ones we dream of, and the ones against which we define our own, modern, civilised world.

Still, confused and powerless in the face of a globalised, digitised world, where U.S. sub-prime mortgages somehow affect Cypriot savers, the Middle Ages of fairy-tale and fantasy present a period of heroes and villains, where it was easy to distinguish between good and evil, and the right, noble and courageous course of action was clear.

Other current concerns shaped the design, as well as the experience, of the exhibition: the ideas of deceleration (‘Entschleunigung’) and of resource scarcity. The children were surprised at all the things made by hand in the Middle Ages, delighted at being able to make them themselves.

A nine-year-old boy carefully helped his four-year-old sister with the scales to weigh the ‘metal’ (represented by modelling clay) to mint into a coin. They carefully follow the little steps until they finally, proudly, hold their own coins in their hands. Other children realise for the first time that medicines didn’t come in plastic packages, but were prepared by grinding or boiling medicinal plants. Another group goes – without electric light, of course – into a dark (tent) tunnel looking for iron ore, without which there would have been no knights in armour.

And although this is an exhibition on the Middle Ages, accompanying adults frequently explained how when they were young, things were made by hand, too, and couldn’t just be bought in shops. A grandfather watching his grandson write with a feather quill tells him that in his primary school, his desk had just such an indentation into which the ink was poured, and yes, inkblots had happened to him, too.

Indeed, our modern, thoughtless consumption of finite natural resources informed the exhibition, confirms Ganzer. The first area of the exhibition represents the wood that still covered most of Europe in the Middle Ages. Between upright tree trunks lie chopped logs the children can stack, or try to move about on a low cart, leading to questions about wood’s uses, from building to heating, cooking, and processing the iron ore of tools and knightly armour.

Ganzer’s main concern, though, was to help children develop a sense of time. To a primary school child, a 40-year-old seems ancient: How then to give him or her an idea of the Middle Ages, which ended over 500 years ago? A long, coiled rope is labelled at appropriate points with “6 years ago”, “30 years ago”, “100 years ago”, and so on, representing years by centimeters.

At “130 years ago” there is a picture of an electric light bulb, and one child is even able to name Thomas Edison.

All is done with simple elements: No expensive, fancy reproductions here, nor even the interactive screens in so many museums these days, especially when they try to engage a younger audience. This is not Eco’s hyper-reality, where the fakes seem more authentic than reality. Rather, it’s like the box in which the expensive toy came that can be the best entertainment, so the eclectic collection of everyday items in the exhibition sets the imagination free.


Once Upon a Time… The Middle Ages 

Through August 

Entry: free for children, €4 for adults 

ZOOM Kindermuseum, 

7., MuseumsQuartier, Museumsplatz 1, 

(01) 524 7908

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