The museum built to hold the treasure troves of art that Austria's Habsburg Emperors gathered over centuries.
Sitting opposite the Neue Berg – the last sweeping extension of the Hofberg Imperial Palace – are two bold and monumental buildings, mirroring one another. One houses the Museum of Natural History. The other is the Museum of Art History – the Kunsthistorischesmuseum, or KHM as the Viennese like to call it. This fascinating museum was built by the Habsburg Emperors as a fitting home for their ever-growing collections of artistic works.
This a collection of personal favourites and one-off pieces was built up over five centuries by some of the richest and most powerful rulers in Europe. The Habsburgs had much of the continent – from Spain to the Low Countries, from Italy to Germany – paying allegiance to them. That meant they could range far in their art collecting. And a tour round the KHM reveals just how far.
The museum is split into two levels. The lower floors are packed with a multitude of artistic artefacts from across the ancient world. You'll find images, jewellery, mosaics and sculptures from Ancient Egypt, the Middle East, and (of course) Greece and Rome. Perhaps the most exciting exhibit is that covering the Egyptian Death Cult. This includes details on the process of mummification, the funeral rites of the Egyptians and – naturally – plenty of mummies.
It's in this level that you'll also find later European sculptures, including the world-famous Cellini Salt Cellar. Gently hammered from the finest gold, this elegant little statue shows Neptune and Ceres partly entwined. Often called the “Mona Lisa” of sculpture, this NZ$70 million artwork was the centre of some drama, when it was stolen in 2003. Fortunately, it was found buried north of Vienna.
The upper floors are dedicated to the Habsburgs’ painting collections. While they cover everything from the medieval era onwards, they do have recognised strengths – especially in the Flemish artists of the 15th to 18th centuries, including plenty of paintings by Pieter Brueghel and Rubens, who has several rooms dedicated to his work. You'll also find Caravaggio, Raphael, Rembrandt and more. It's a vibrant and revealing collection – less an art education, more a whirlwind tour around the best that European art has produced.