Lange Nacht der Museen

Oct 52008

Last night was a long night. It felt like two or three long nights.

I hit the streets at 6 p.m. to check out Austria’s annual museum night, Lange Nacht der Museen, for an article that I started reporting a month ago. Over the course of nearly four hours, I zipped around on my bike from ticket window to gallery to crypt, talking to docents, laid-back and friendly young adults like me, giggling kids, proud parents and at least one college student who seemed appalled that an article might identify her as spending Saturday evening with her parents.

Birgit and Daniela, both 26, were happy to talk to me about their museumgoing habits. After all, they said, they were in a really long line for the tickets and had at least 15 minutes to go.

A lot of the people in line, and particularly the twentysomethings, told me money was a big reason for participating. A single museum visit normally costs €5 to €10 ($8 to $16), but last night was just €13 for an all-you-can-view-touch-taste-hear-or-try-out-in-seven-hours museum crawl.

The national broadcaster, which organized the event, reported 427,000 visitors last night, more than 5 percent of Austria’s 8.3 million residents. Just under half of those were in Vienna, and the rest were strewn across the rest of the country.

I had already thought of Austria as a culturally conscious place, but last night really blew me away. More than 600 museums and galleries threw open their doors, including the Chocolate Museum, the Old Vienna Schnapps Museum, the Chimney Sweep Museum, the Jewish Museum in several different cities, and several museums dedicated to specific composers, starting with Mozart.

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen so many people standing in line to get into anything, let alone in 45 degree weather on a huge public square, the Heldenplatz in this case.

A lot of parents brought along their pre-teen children, most of whom seemed genuinely thrilled to be on a giant museum crawl. I saw three 7-year-old girls squeeze, giggling, into a coffin displayed at the Bestattungsmuseum (Funeral Museum), which used to be the official municipal funeral parlor. The mother of one told me that she was trying to figure out how to trick the kids into going home soon so she could go back out catch a couple of painting exhibits.

In the visitor count, the Museum of Natural History came out on top this year, with 12,737 visitors.

It can get crowded at a lot of the museums. None of my friends or coworkers were planning to go this year. Most had been in previous years, and they told me the crowds can be annoying and distract from the exhibits inside.

“This is shaping up to be the Long Night of Standing,” one young man quipped as we were standing in line for tickets.

It took me more than three hours to gather up enough color and quotes for my article, which is supposed to appear in the November/December issue of Museum magazine in the U.S.

It was fun, but I had hoped it would go faster, since my advisor at the Austrian magazine was having her 40th birthday party at 7 p.m. at a rented getaway locale, Octagon am Himmel. I had found it on the map at the far western edge of Vienna. Better said, it was a couple of miles beyond the urban area and at the very edge of Bundesstaat Wien, on the border to the state of Niederstereich. It was going to be a five-mile ride, and I figured it would take 30 minutes with city traffic. I had expected to get there around 9.

I didn’t leave the funeral museum until a little after 9. The road got steeper at about the three-mile mark. And then I discovered why the locale was named “Octagon at the Edge of Heaven”: The last mile was mostly at grades of 8 to 12 percent. And it really was an Octagon-shaped pavilion on Himmelstrae. I drew a few glances when I walked in, with mussed-up hair and a sweat-soaked shirt.

I reckon it was worth the haul, though: Fun evening, lots of food and wine, good people and the time got away from me. I left at what I thought was probably midnight. I flew down the hill, back through unknown corners of the city, walked into my apartment and looked at the clock: 1:42 a.m.