Gilded Through History

After a stolen salt cellar and over a decade of renovations, the re-opened ­Kunstkammer in the Kunsthistorisches Museum offers a millenium’s worth of ornament and decadence

Top Stories | Nicholas K. Smith | March 2013

Assembled by the Habsburgs over hundreds of years, the Kunstkammer’s treasures range from the transcendent to the bizarre (Photo: hg merz architekten)

It’s dark. We see a man entering a gallery whose dozens of display cases are all empty, save one. He approaches it, eyes wide with wonder at the golden object topped with two reclining figures in front of him: The Benvenuto Cellini Salt Cellar. While he gazes at it, he begins talking to the piece, about theft, murder and the orgies surrounding it. And then, satisfied, he walks off.

This promotional video is the first public glimpse of the treasures contained in the Kunsthistorisches Museum’s (KHM) new wing, the Kunstkammer. After a decade of renovations, costing millions of euros, the 2,700 square-metre exhibition space is finally ready to display the treasures of the Habsburgs to the public beginning in March. The gallery had been closed to the public since 2002 in order to refurbish the lights, windows, security, building structure, displays, climate control and pretty much everything else you’d need for an exhibition in the 21st century.

That security upgrade is especially important to the Cellini Salt Cellar, the collection's most iconic piece.


Security post-Cellini

In the early morning hours of 11 May 2003, a thief broke into the museum and walked out with the 26cm tall golden spice container. He was gone for four hours before anyone knew one of the loveliest pieces of Renaissance art was missing. In an ironic twist, it emerged that the thief didn't even know what he had until media reports published the significance of the heist, certainly the biggest for the museum in living memory.

"After it was stolen in 2003, it really gained worldwide attention, you could say," said museum General Director Dr. Sabine Haag. Three years later, with the thief in custody, police dug out a lead box containing the salt cellar from a snowy, wooded area 100 kilometres northeast of Vienna. It's now insured for €50 million. It's not hard to imagine why the Kunsthistorisches Museum would want visitors crowding around the Renaissance saltshaker the same way they do at the Belvedere in front of Klimt’s The Kiss.

Of course, the gilded candelabra, statues, tapestries, cameos and artist's sketchbooks aren’t the only fascinating objects in the Kunstkammer, also known, for good reason, as the Chamber of Art and Wonders. A number of offbeat curios are sure to attract attention. One featured in the project's marketing is a jewel-encrusted bear holding a hunting rifle. Elsewhere, an automaton in the form of a ship entertained guests of Emperor  Rudolph II. The rhinoceros horn goblet topped with a demon's head is equally eye-catching.


A collective effort

About €15 million in funding came from the Austrian government while the museum itself was able to raise another €3.5 million in private donations. In the past year, you might have seen gold-helmed bike messengers zooming past posters of KHM patrons posing with the helmets. The campaign wasn’t a big moneymaker compared with a €4,000-a-head donation to be a "contemporary patron". But it contributed something just as valuable.

"It became a symbol of the project," Haag said. "It addressed everyone; the broad masses of the people, not just the elite." The €49 helmets will still be available, with a €69 version for skiing.


Living off the dynasty

The Kunstkammer's collection spans more than a thousand years, from a 9th century    Carolingian ivory tablet of Christ's ascension, the oldest piece, to a ceiling painting of the House of Habsburg patrons, coming in at a relatively spry age of 122 years, first shown when the museum opened its doors in 1891. The 2,200 or so objects on display account for about a quarter of the museum's holdings of Habsburg treasure accumulated over the centuries.

The collection is largely made up of the contributions from three of them: Archduke Ferdinand II of Tyrol, Emperor Rudolf II and Archduke Leopold Wilhelm. Other Habsburgs of course added to the collection, but these three actively sought out interesting and important items to display. In those days, a Kunstkammer was meant to house a range of fascinating and curious items from all over the word, acting almost as "walk-in encyclopedias".

Elsewhere in the museum, there is a painting of Archduke Leopold showing his picture collection, an interesting bit of meta-artwork with many of the museum’s paintings reproduced in miniature in this 1651 work, nearly 200 years earlier than Samuel F.B. Morse’s famed 1831 painting Gallery of the Louvre that dazzled the art world at the time. Leopold’s Kunstkammer artefacts themselves are every bit as impressive. Haag acknowledges that with the museum’s Bruegels and Titians, it's a lot to absorb in one visit.

"We strongly believe in the aura of the original, but we recognise the visitor needs information on different levels," she said.

Thus the new section features iPad displays, an app and the museum’s website itself to give visitors as much information as they desire.

It wasn't so long ago that a visitor would walk into a museum and aimlessly slide by dozens of priceless objects without batting an eye, with too little context to make sense of what was there to see. Once museums catered more to the experts: You had to know a lot going in to really appreciate what was there before you.

"The expectation of the guests have changed quite a bit," Haag said.

There’s more emphasis now on storytelling, as museums have shifted to become places where people spend their leisure time, returning to the original idea of a Kunstkammer itself: to dazzle, and ideally, to startle the visitors into a renewed and enduring sense of wonder.


Opens 1 March

Kunsthistorisches Museum

1., Burgring 5

(01) 525 24 0


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