Vienna remains a glistening cultural centre even a century after its last golden age but the Kriminalmuseum manages to tarnish that image.
Yes, I’m finally back on the road! After a monumentally stressful and twisty-turny year me and Kristina enjoyed my belated birthday trip to Vienna and smartly set about exploring some of the weirder sights on offer. Before we begin I should warn you that there are some graphic images in this article so if you are weak in constitution, or in a workplace that would frown upon anything dubious then please step away from this page right now.
We were staying in a hotel on Praterstraße east of the Danube canal, next to Nestroyplatz, so we picked the Kriminalmuseum as our first destination because it is only a ten-minute walk away, at Große Sperlgasse 24. Upon entering the reception area we knew immediately that we were the first visitors of the day. The man at the till stood up to greet us and happily took our €6 each for entry, and €2 for the English guide leaflet. This ‘short guide’ is absolutely essential if you don’t read German very well, otherwise the whole visit will consist of a series of bewilderingly morbid photographs and discombobulated artefacts. However it is indeed ‘short’ compared to the luxuriant German interpretation panels on displays.
The Crime Museum is situated in an old soap factory ‘boiling house’ and is a warren of low tunnels, unexpected steps, and bottlenecks. Silence reigned throughout the museum once we left behind the seemingly only member of staff and entered the first exhibition room. Our footsteps echoed down the long corridor leading off of it. Bear this atmosphere in mind, it comes up later…
Displays here are unashamedly old-fashioned in style. Life sized wooden cut-outs of Vienna’s original competing police units are stationed in the middle of the room, the snappily-named Rumorwache and bog-standard Stadtguardia. Various documents about the usual “epilepsy vs. witchcraft case” vie with pikes and swords for wall space. The clear ‘highlight’ of this room though is this extremely horrific rudimentary guillotine:
As far as I can tell it’s not actually designed to take your head off, more to smash your neck into pancake so that your head wibbles around sans-blood or oxygen. Your neck is placed under a wooden block, which replaces the blade of the French version, and then the oversized wooden mallet is used to smash the block down onto the cervical vertebrae. No need to keep sharpening a blade, just one big whack and you’re ready for the next troublemaker – how’s that for stereotypical Germanic efficiency?
Our peace and gore was rudely interrupted by another visitor, and then a whole host of visitors crashing through the door and cascading down into the tunnel where we were admiring a mummified head. Of course. Most of these people didn’t seem to be that bothered about the museum and quickly passed us but it was quite a squeeze at times. Certainly no place for disabled people to move around easily.
The tone of displays swung from blood and body parts in crimes long since left unsolved to counterfeiting and repeated claims that the fledgling Viennese police force was the greatest in the world. Maybe this was true, maybe not. Undoubtedly there were several very important innovations and discoveries made by the police here. Later in the museum we get to see the wonderful crime scene “handbags” that Viennese sleuths would bring along to each scary scene full of splatters and sadness. These were full of fingerprint dusting kits and other essential tools of the trade. Finally some real artefacts that bring you back to what it meant to be a policeman at the dawn of the art.
As the crowd ebbed and flowed from room to room you could be forgiven for starting to see all the human skulls and death masks as little more than theatre. Simply turning the next corner put paid to that notion because hanging from the ceiling was a large black and white banner-sized photograph of a woman who had been murdered and mutilated. Wait, does that mean it made it even more theatrical? I can’t decide! Kristina’s face told me something was up long before I saw this image but I have to say it was actually pretty shocking, and I’m not that easily shocked.
This museum is often not for the faint-hearted. But then if you’re the kind of person who willingly goes to a Crime Museum when you could have gone to one of Vienna’s other mainstream and famously dainty attractions such as the Spanish/Winter Riding School then you’re probably going to get over that shock in the same way you would when you almost-but-not-quite knock your coffee over.
Cases of poisoning, attempted murder of the Emperor, the riots of 1848, bodily mutilation, child murderers, virgin murderers, more counterfeiting, even the case of Adrienne Eckhart where the actual meat grinder used is on display – they all take you along a tour that, if this were a jangled competition for ‘World’s Best Crimes’, easily rivals anything Jack the Ripper or Crippen managed to conjure up. Where the museum tries to educate rather than thrill it is very interesting, but I would have liked to see more evidence that the Viennese police force really were the best around. More in-depth stories of how each crime was solved instead of galleries of death. One double-height vaulted room, which justifiably bills itself as the most architecturally interesting of the whole museum, had an old lab microscope in the centre and various casts of victims heads around the edge. The ‘short guide’ was true to form in being rather vague but I think this was precisely the kind of informative display I was hoping to see. So it’s a shame I couldn’t make out much of what it was trying to tell me.
In contrast one amusing, totally unexpected, but welcome room given what we had seen so far was the stage set reproduction of one of Vienna’s “amorous drawingrooms or tolerated houses”. This garish pink nook depicted a type of gentleman’s club which used to churn out painted and drawn pornography. Fine smut, if you like. It must have been more than acceptable to one other visitor to the Crime Museum who relaxed so much that they farted. Farted so loudly that it echoed through those long brick tunnels!
Silence gradually returned and we picked ourselves off of the cold tiled floor. I patted my clothes to dispel the mortar dust shaken loose from the ceiling. Still crouching in case of falling brickwork we scuttled into the next room, which focussed on the twentieth century.
A grim device called ‘Instrument F’ took the lives of over 1000 Austrians during the 1930s and 40s. It is basically another guillotine but it has an industrial look to it that makes it feel a lot more scary. Somehow. One of the final rooms places Instrument F next to the improved ‘strangle gibbet’ that the museum refers to several times. Once again this finale feels a little too close to revelling in the action of illegal murder and state-sponsored murder rather than the science of criminology.
Compared to places like the London Dungeon it delivers history in a less theme parky kind of way. By the end of your visit you aren’t left entertained any more than disturbed. You start to wonder where the dividing line between the dismembering, torturing world’s best police force and the dismembering, torturing criminal psychopath really lies. The Kriminalmuseum, itself a division of Vienna’s forensic police department, treads that fine line very carefully but in the end it is definitely worth a visit because it refuses to shy away from the worst bits of its own history. You will be entertained, and then you will be shocked, and then you will be amused so much you might pass wind, and then you will end up depressed at modern mechanised death. There are rumours that London’s invite-only and badly-kept secret, the Metropolitan Police ‘Black Museum’, will be opening up to the public in some form within the next few years. I very much doubt that it would pursue a similar form but when you cover this kind of subject it must be almost impossible to create something attractive to visitors and educational at the same time. The Crime Museum does what it does pretty well. It’s not modern and it is a bit of a weirdly morbid pleasure at times but you get just as many well-deserved figurative smacks in the face to remind you what you are looking at.
A ghastly-dark roller-coaster ride, but one you should take on. If you can handle it.