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Film: The transformation of the Swiss Alpine Museum

Beat Hächler is the Director of the Swiss Alpine Museum in Bern, a museum dedicated to the nature and culture of the Swiss Alps. He joined us for MuseumNext New York in November 2016 to share the story of how his museum has undergone a transformation, and shared their exciting work.

Beat Hächler: [Speaking in Swiss] … that is Swiss charm and it means hello to everybody. Good afternoon. I am very happy to be here and to share some experiences with a very small museum, we have 900% jobs so we are not nine persons, it is a lot of part time jobs but we are a little institution, even in the Swiss scale of museums, but we are quite motivated to do our work. You see here a construction site symbol. For me it is a little bit of a synonym for museum work. I hope that this under construction status is our normal status and that we never end. So when I talk with my team about this under construction symbol then they are a little bit not so quiet with this idea, but I think museums should never end with their constructions and always reinvent the institution.

What you will picture when you hear Swiss Alpine Museum, we could now do some dialogue with you but I imagine some ideas you maybe will have. I think when you hear Swiss Alpine Museum it must be a museum about beautiful mountains, about Swiss flags and Matterhorn’s and other 4,000 metre peaks. Maybe it is a museum about climbers, alpinists, outdoor adventure, maybe you know Heidi. Heidi is very famous in Japan, also in Switzerland they did a new film, so this alpine culture about pure Alps, not simple minds but pure minds, fresh air. So a little bit of a counterpoint to the urban life. And of course all this Swiss stuff about cheese, chocolate, watches, money washing – no that is not … so the things we imagine when we hear Swiss.

So I like, of course, to describe what I imagine is the Swiss Alpine Museum I do a very short trip through the history of this museum. It started in 1905 in this palazzo and then you see the first room in it and you can imagine who were the founders of this museum. Of course they were people in the city of Berne, so there is no shepherd, no cow, no farmer, no people who live in the mountains. These people were academics, military officers, researchers, and they collected all they could collect related to mountains. So mountain models, maps, stuffed animals, stones, paintings, artwork. So they had a little bit of money to collect it. And in the 30s they could create a foundation, a public or private foundation so in the 30s, 1934, you can imagine what happened in Germany, what happened in Italy in the 30s. So the Swiss nation constructed a collective meet that especially the mountains and the Alps are almost a backbone of this Swiss nation. In the north this is Nazi Germany and in the south is the Fascist Italy. So Switzerland is like a fortress with these mountains. It is even today this heritage, ideology is still a bit of life. They constructed a new, quite a modern building, to do a national mountain museum, this Swiss Alpine Museum. The Alpine Museum had just a part, two floors in this building, the other part was the Post Museum, and we still are in this building. And you see just one part of the sonography of the 30s, it was like a little bit of colonial look of the citizens in a city on this alpine traditions and a little bit natives in the Alps.

In the nineties they did completely relaunch and the museum was closed for three years. They did a new sonography and the architecture has changed a bit. For me it is a little bit like a natural history style museum in the sonography of the late eighties. There were a lot of mountain models, here the Matterhorn in a corner. They did themes like tourism in the Alp. It was the sonography they worked with these puppets, so the goal was to make it very dynamic or to make it living like this person who is waxing the keys. But I think the effect was quite different so this permanent exhibition was presented for about 20 years on two floors, and this was also the condition to start thinking about this museum. I was confronted with the image of a museum which has really become very static. I spoke with a lot of people and they said when I was in school class I had to go to the Swiss Alpine Museum and draw a mountain for some hours, and I never go back to this museum. Maybe we could have done a group for traumatised children who had to go to the Swiss Alpine Museum.

It was this continuity of this museum was the big question, can we continue with this line of working or should we better do a kind of cut and try to reinvent this museum? Before I give the answer of what we tried to do, I think the leading impression for me was that this orientation towards the past, towards the history missed a very important theme. Somebody told me some minutes ago to just read the newspaper to see what are the themes in the audience. And that is quite true. When you are in Switzerland now and follow a little bit of the debates in society then you recognise that a lot of issues related to mountains are really the middle of the society and of the present and the future. I will give you some examples. We defined that there are three construction sites. Content, then the structure and of course the money. I will not speak about the money. So these debates in society today is, for example, the immigration debate of course. That is an example of a poster of a referendum from a populist right wing party. It is the biggest party in the Swiss parliament. It was a referendum about expulsion of criminal foreigners. The referendum was accepted. That is just one of the different referendums. So you see the sheep which is an animal related to the mountain region. So the white sheep kicks out the black sheep. I don’t have to tell you who is the white sheep and who is the black sheep. It is a very tense discussion in our society, always related to that we have to save Switzerland this mountain country and defend this country against all these black sheep who will come to this country. We have a big debate about these crosses on the summit of mountains. It was a Swiss artist who did some months ago a half moon on a summit, and it was a big shit storm about this action. Are these crosses religious signs or cultural signs or what is it? The debate about these crosses is of course not a mountain theme it is a debate about all this secularisation about the values of religion, about racism, about different topics.

Globalisation. You see in the background the [unintelligible 00:10:47] it is the top of Europe, this famous touristic destination. Now it is about 80% of the tourists came from Asian countries, so from Japan, from China, Taiwan, South Korea. So it is a very international tourism. It is of course interesting what changed it, what is the perception also of tourism for these people who do the business and also for the guests. Or in the Alps the climate change, global warming, you have now a lot of destinations between 1,000 and 2,000 metres they have problems to do longer winter tourism. So how do we speak about these problems about the jobs there, about investments in skiing tourism. It is a very recent discussion and it will go on.

Or about mobility traffic. We are in a European traffic system between Germany and Italy, and Switzerland opened a tunnel 59 kilometres long for a railway to get all this transport more on the railway. But you can imagine that all this traffic will change also this Alpine Heidi world in a different way. I think I could give you a lot of other examples that the present and the future has a lot of debates. And with debates it is not only an opinion or a fact and then people say yes it is, it is really a debate, a pro and a contra. The museum could be a place or a social space to deal with these questions.

When I had to identify theme clusters and I give you some different measures of these letters. So most of the project we did in the last four years were about this cluster about identity. So we have today a big difference between rural regions and urban regions. So the whole perception and what could happen in the Alps, the development of the Alps is in the cities and is really different than these rural regions. I think we see this phenomenon in a lot of Western countries, maybe even in this country here. That we have a scissor that goes in different directions. Then we have sometimes these nature themes. I think about climate change now and an exhibition about water resources in the future. The economy I think about themes like tourism, so the jobs in the Alps, what is changing there. Or all this leisure society about alpinism and hiking and biking and all these things that we are doing with the Alps.

On the structure level we decided to abolish the permanent exhibition for the moment, maybe in some years we will reinvent. And the former museum on the left side has a permanent exhibition on two floors and a smaller temporary exhibition and now we changed that we have a space for bigger temporary exhibitions and on the ground floor we did invent a beewak. A beewak is this box in the high mountains where you can sleep. It is a very simple infrastructure. The beewak in the museum is like a lab, an experimental space to do little exhibitions. We will create an office of lost memories, that is a kind of interface between the collection and the memories of the users, how they used old skis or shoes or whatever. We started with pop-up exhibitions. We did a new restaurant in the museum because Alpine food and drinks is something very important. You can learn a lot about sausages and soups coming out from the Alpine region. So it is important to have it in the house.

So I would like now to give you three examples of little projects just to give you a little bit more content about how we try to work. This summer we had this project Out of Africa, how the geranium came to Switzerland. It sounds a little bit funny. Why the geranium? But when you have been in the … that is an example from [unintelligible 00:16:31]. It is a hotel, it looks like a chalet but this chalet is a little bit too big. It is also a construction to a little bit of a fake chalet and it is overloaded with geraniums with this plant, and this plant is really seen for a lot of Swiss people as really an invention of Switzerland. A lot of people think so. It has always been in Switzerland so it must be from heaven directly to Switzerland. The story of this plant is completely different and we thought in these times of migration and of inclusion or exclusion it could be quite interesting to present the story of this plant because this plant comes from South Africa. The Geranium Africana came from the Netherlands Trade Company to a first camp where they collected the plants coming from South Africa called the Botanical Garden of Leiden. In the beginning of the 20th century in the city of Berne they did a real street parade with the young girls and boys with the geraniums. It was like a party for the whole city that they celebrated this plant as a typical local plant. They gave instructions to the people how to decorate windows, how to make the city more beautiful. In the fifties it was really mainstream that every normal Swiss household has on the window a box with these geraniums. It is really the mainstream of the mainstream to have geraniums in the windows. This is a picture of this year. Every year in the city of Berne, that is the capital of Switzerland, they choose the king of the geranium, so that is the person who has the most beautiful window box in the city. It is a really common plant and a very popular plant which is celebrated every year.

But at the same time, and that was maybe something people didn’t really realise that, for example, Kato, the capital of Ecuador, has the name of [unintelligible 00:19:52] and they have exactly the same traditions and they say of course Kato is really the city of the geranium. In Georgia, USA, they have this Miss Geranium election or today the geraniums are globally produced, most of the European geraniums are produced in [unintelligible 00:20:31], Uganda, Kenya, and then they came by plane back to Europe. They grew up then in some supermarket and you buy it as a typical Swiss geranium. So the interesting point in this exhibition is to show a little bit of deconstruction of this typical Swiss plant, not in the sense of to destroy the joy with this plant but just to show that it is a part of a globalised world and I also think that the message that all over the world people think it is my geranium. In Bavaria, the US, everywhere, they think it is our geranium, that is not such a bad message. We cooperated with this exhibition with city gardeners. They planted geraniums all over the city, and with the botanical garden they display these South African origin plants and it was a big communication about this simple plant, about the cultural context to make … you have a foreign plant and you transform it on your own and in this inclusive act.

Outside of the museum we could do a sculpture. Normally it is a parking place but the city permitted that we could do a sculpture, a little bit of [unintelligible 00:22:17] sculpture. It is a balcony sculpture. A lot of balconies, and there was space to be to picnic and people liked it to be the whole summer.

Another very simple project was the Matterhorn family. It was in the last year when the first climbing of the Matterhorn was anniversary, 150 years. And of course you can imagine as a tourist destination they did a lot of promotion about this fact and every sport shop in [unintelligible 00:23:02] showed old skis and old clothes. So they asked The Alpine Museum to do a little exhibition in [unintelligible 00:23:14] that is a place on 3,100 metres, it is a tourist hotspot, a little bit like the [unintelligible 00:23:21] region. So there are a lot of tourists from Asian countries, from Europe, the US, UK, so they come to see the Matterhorn there. It is quite boring to show the story of this old climbing and we decided another exhibition about the Matterhorn’s in the world because there are about 200 mountains and they have the nickname to be the Matterhorn of somewhere. So you see here the Mount Kenya, the so-called Matterhorn of Africa. It is not me who invented this name, you can find it in literature, in books, that they took the Matterhorn as a reference and then give the name to different mountains with the Matterhorn. You see here on the left side [unintelligible 00:23:21]. It is the Matterhorn of Sicily, very seldom in snow. On the right side is the Little Matterhorn, that is the real name, in Colorado USA. Or here Mount [unintelligible 00:24:40] in Canada, or the [unintelligible 00:24:44] in Peru. Of course it is quite typical that 150 years ago the first Alpinists were the English who came to Switzerland to climb the Matterhorn, and it is quite Europe centred understanding that the Matterhorn is not K2 of Switzerland but it is the opposite. You have the point of reference here in Europe. But we like to show this in a pop-up installation on the [unintelligible 00:25:26]. We printed all these mountain tandems on sheets of paper and the tourists from all these countries could takeaway this sheet.

At the end of four months and about 360,000 papers, they were all gone. So the tourists really liked this big postcard. For me it was a little bit subversive idea. It was true that the Matterhorn was a reference for these international mountains but it was also true to show all these people that they have mountains in Japan, in all their countries where they came from with quite a similar shape, with a beautiful nature around. They came to [unintelligible 00:26:35] to see the so-called real Matterhorn. For [unintelligible 00:26:41] it was also a little bit of self-ironical approach to show their own Matterhorn in this global world.

The last example is City Mountains made in Taiwan was the result of the idea by chance, I was once at a museum meeting in Taipei, on the way from the hotel to this venue I saw this electrical switch box. I think in every town you have these things. It was painted with landscapes and with mountains. When you are in Taipei I think it still exists, all over the city are these landscapes and these mountains painted, a little bit in this [unintelligible 00:27:45] and sometimes also a little bit [unintelligible 00:27:45] way to paint a landscape. They also painted [unintelligible 00:28:00] so in the public room the mountains were very visible but first I wondered why because I didn’t know so much about mountains in this country, Taiwan.

The idea was quite near when I looked to Berne, that is a little bit of a depressing image. Of course we have in Berne also these switch boxes. They have to be grey but normally they are not grey they is some graffiti or something on it. It was quite a clear idea that we could do something with these switch boxes in Berne.

The project had two ideas. We had a cooperation with Fu Yen University in Taiwan, the museum studies, this is the class here. And they did a video work about the switch boxes in Taipei. It was a very simple video idea. They had a static cam and they filmed the static switch box but around was the busy traffic of this metropolitan of Taipei. I can give you a little example. [Video playing.] So they did about 40 videos in the whole city of Taipei. The only thing you could see was always a different switch box and you see the people who pass through the image or you see the traffic. For the students who did this video it was interesting that they never perceived before that these mountains are so present in the city and we displayed this video in an exhibition in Berne. We invited Master Jude, a 65 year old painter of paintings of Berne, for two weeks so that he could paint in the public space in his style of Swiss mountain landscapes on these grey boxes. The government of the city of Berne gave us the permission to do it, after it was not so sure but finally they did it. We had just one condition that after this project we had to repaint it in a grey way. Of course I had to accept it to get the permission. After the project they phoned me and said so now it is over you know what to do? And then we answered yes we can do it but only we do it when you order it in a public way, in the newspapers. And of course they didn’t come back to this idea because the Taiwanese painter he couldn’t speak English and we couldn’t speak Chinese so we had an interpreter. His performance became very popular so people came and brought him chocolate to invite him to have lunch together. So it was this popular idea that of course nobody really wanted to stop it.

So he did, on the most popular squares and places in Berne, his work. I saw two months ago that there was a graffiti on such painting and then I think it was people of the neighbourhood they cleaned it and the city said it is the best protection against graffiti to have this kind of work.

At the museum’s façade he did a big modern painting with Chinese writing, and it was for us a small project but with a big impact in a wider audience.

So what is the Swiss Alpine Museum? For me it is a construction place, I hope that we can involve people to reflect what in the present happens. And for me it is not really an option to do a museum about just Alpinists or climbing, it is much more interesting to speak about the relationship between people and mountain and to do it with examples from Taiwan to Argentina, sometimes of course Switzerland, but it is much more thrilling to do it in this way. Okay, thank you.

Beat Hächler is the Director of the Swiss Alpine Museum in Bern, a museum dedicated to the nature and culture of the Swiss Alps. He joined us for MuseumNext New York in November 2016 to share the story of how his museum has undergone a transformation, and shared their exciting work.

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