The Museum of Military History, one of the most important history museums in the world, is situated right in the centre of the Arsenal...The Military History Museum was built according to plans of Ludwig Foerster and Theophil Hansen from 1850 to 1856 and was thus the first Viennese museum. The styles of this town's oldest historic building range from Byzantine, Hispano-Moorish to Neo-Gothic. In five major sections the museum shows the history of the Habsburg empire from the end of the 16th century until 1918 and Austria's fate after the dissolution of the monarchy up to the year 1945.
The architecture of the museum, however, only represented the first chapter in the idea-history of the establishment, to be followed by many more. This was the beginning of a never-ending story, so to speak. For, what Emperor Francis Joseph came to see at the laying down of the headstone for the Arsenal on 8 May 1856 and Rudolf Alt captured in a watercolour painting shortly after was far from being accomplished.
One year later, the last details had been added to the outer facades, but the artistic interior design would only be finished sixteen years later. In their work, the architects and artists responsible for the interior design, such as Carl Rahl and Carl Blaas, but particularly the “directors” of the museum, namely the first curators and custodians, partly disregarded the building’s original dedication as a new home for infantry weapons as well as the valuable imperial weapons collection. Thereby, traditions were continued, but also a new feeling for the dimensions time and space as well as a new awareness of liberty and nationality were projected onto the social and political backgrounds of an Austria that was already one thousand years old at the time. A project was born.
Mostly, the year 1848 is considered to have triggered the establishment of premises with a primarily military purpose, called Arsenal, in the southeast of Vienna. A military complex was built to house both troops and weapons. To this building a representative compound was added, which was to accommodate the first museum built in Vienna. Thus, it became clear that the aim of this building was not only expediency but to provide the capital and city of residence of the Habsburg Empire with an impressive and beautifully designed compound. The winners of the competition were two teams of architects, namely that of Eduard van der Nüll and August of Siccardsburg, and the one of Ludwig Förster and Theophil Hansen. Förster and Hansen were commissioned with the building of an armoury, which soon received the name “weapons museum”. Both began with the detailed planning and building in 1849, but the partnership did not last long, so Hansen was the one who finally realised his concept. He was planning a building of 235 metres length, with protruding cross sections and corner towers as well as a tower-like centre section with a square top view, crowned by a cupola. For an architectural style he chose Byzantine, which was to be mixed with gothicised elements. The facade of the building was decorated with allegoric figures, created by Hans Gasser, one of the most important sculptors.
In this context, it was suggested to put up the figures of the most renowned rulers and military commanders in random constellations and to immortalize on frescos some of the most notable battles and greatest events in military history.
It was Carl Blaas then who implemented in his mural paintings a programme the content of which was the comprehensive history of Austria. In his work he did not only have to keep in mind the building, which had been created as a kind of artistic synthesis, to which each detail has been added with unimaginable care, but also content-related guidelines that he received from historians. Even art was put in the service of a museum that was to depict Austria’s journey through the ages. Only as early as 1872 was the task completed.
Regarding the question which objects were to be exhibited in this imperial weapons museum, it turned out, of course, that no one had actually considered what exactly was to be shown inside of it. The building seemed too small and too big at the same time, representing an idea by itself, and which did not necessarily need to house anything. Furthermore, the imperial weapons collection was too large to be exhibited in the hall that had been earmarked for it. Therefore, it only remained in the Arsenal building briefly before being moved to the Museum of Fine Arts on Ring Street. Since, however, the museum in the Arsenal building was to continue being used, it had to be defined, for a second time, what kind of museum it should house. The eventual answer to this question was that it should hold a collection which all “ethnic tribes” of the monarchy should be able to recognise themselves in.
Thanks to the efforts of a very industrious board of trustees, a multitude of important objects was assembled between 1884 and 1891, actually forming the basis of a huge and grand collection. Thus, when the museum – then called Army Museum – was visited on 21 May 1891 for the first time, the efforts of the past 35 years to provide the establishment with continuity were completed, for the time being. With the beginning of World War I in 1914, the museum was closed; however, this did not stop the collection from being continued. On the contrary, every effort was made to make up for any deficits of the museum and to give start to a collection activity as complex as possible.
In 1921 the museum was re-opened. Part of its accessions were housed in new depots, others were exhibited in the show rooms, whereby the war paintings gallery, opened in 1923, was especially important, since here, for the first time, fine arts were presented at a notable scope, however, not putting battle scenes and army leaders in the foreground, but rather showing the everyday military routine and the social circumstances in times of war.
The losses resulting from Second World War were considerable. Both the Arsenal and the compounds housing the displaced exhibits suffered severe losses. At long last, pillaging took place as well. The re-construction of the museum in 1946 did not merely include a re-filling of the place. Rather they began to build a history museum, which was to convey a more integrative impression than the old Army Museum. The most important prerequisite was that the museum received paintings from other state-owned collections, especially the Museum of Fine Arts and the Austrian Gallery in the Upper Belvedere, enabling the museum, re-named into Museum of Military History, to document historical events rather than mere episodes and thus become an art museum of a special kind. Due to the abandonment of the collection of ship models by the Technical Museum, the army could be complemented by the military navy as well as important objects depicting maritime research history. These exhibits gave the museum a new shape, which helped to make it a first order culture museum, an art museum, and also a technical and natural science museum.
About five-hundred years of Austrian and European History are depicted in the collections exhibited in the main building, which, to this date, has kept its character of an artistic synthesis, making visible, by means of thousands of original exhibits, a part of world cultural heritage.