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Technology and Culture 41.3 (2000) 530-536

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Museum Reviews

Poised for the New Millennium: The Technical Museums of Prague, Vienna, and Berlin

Louis P. Hutchins


Central Europe boasts a number of important science and technology museums with roots in the early part of the last century. The years from 1903 to 1908 saw the founding of the Deutsches Museum in Munich (1903), the Technisches Museum in Vienna (1908), and the Narodni Technicke Muzeum in Prague (1908); in addition, Berlin's Deutsches Technikmuseum traces its beginnings to the Verkehs, or transportation museum, founded in 1906. All four were established with the idea of preserving and showcasing icons of scientific and industrial prowess. Today their educational role has taken center stage, and although none of these museums is considered a "science center" in the narrow sense of that term, all have made significant strides in expanding their educational missions. Science education within the setting of a traditional museum is nothing new, but those museums that have been able to afford major updates have included a strong science center component. This has brought new complexity to these institutions and, when done well, has improved them dramatically. However, placing science and technology exhibits within a richer social and cultural context remains a more elusive goal.

This review evaluates the three museums in Prague, Berlin, and Vienna. By the end of the nineteenth century, the lands that make up today's Germany, Austria, and the Czech Republic--the very heart of Central Europe--had developed into a powerhouse of technological innovation and industrial production. Their traditions of original scientific research stretched back to the Renaissance. It is not surprising, then, that these three museums offer a cornucopia of world-class collections, ranging from sixteenth-century astronomical instruments to early examples of mining equipment to unique locomotives and automobiles. But they present their collections in quite different ways: in Prague, a fairly traditional approach; in Berlin, a greater emphasis on presenting artifacts within their social and [End Page 530] cultural contexts; and in Vienna, a deft blurring of the boundaries between science center and museum. To some extent these approaches have been influenced by local conditions, and consequently they provide a wonderful opportunity to make comparisons across national borders--and across the remnants of the boundaries between economic systems as well.

Comparisons between Vienna's Technisches Museum and Prague's Narodni Technicke Muzeum offer a number of intriguing insights into the history of this part of Central Europe, for their founding and early growth owe much to the tensions then boiling to the surface between the Austro-Hungarian Empire's center in Vienna and the provincial capitals such as Prague. Although both were founded in 1908, Vienna's museum was funded and supported by the state, while Prague's was supported by a private association of Technical University scholars, businessmen, and wealthy patrons. Its original name, the Technical Museum of the Kingdom of Bohemia, underscored the nationalist motivations for its establishment (and reflected a certain pride that the highest concentration of industrial development within the empire could be found in the Czech lands). In the early 1950s, the communist government in Prague nationalized the museum and used it, in part, to showcase technological achievements under socialism.

Today, eleven years after the collapse of the communist government and eight years after the break-up of Czechoslovakia, the Narodni Technicke Muzeum faces serious financial challenges. Since the so-called "Velvet Revolution," when the communist government capitulated to student and dissident protests in 1989, the number of annual visitors to the museum has plunged and government spending has been significantly cut back. In 1988 the museum attracted just over three hundred thousand visitors; in 1993 fewer than 125,000 people visited the institution, and although the numbers have risen steadily since then, in 1998 they remained less than half the 1988 peak. Various reasons can explain the drop, and higher entrance fees and higher costs of transporting school groups are certainly important factors. Children, either in school groups or in families, constitute...


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