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Museums face a competitive world

Swiss museums face fierce competition from private galleries and foundations (kunsthallezurich) Swiss museums face fierce competition from private galleries and foundations (kunsthallezurich)

Switzerland is one of the museum capitals of the world - boasting the greatest number of institutions per capita in the world.

But according to the Association of Swiss Museums – which is holding its annual congress in Bern this week – many face stiff competition from private galleries.

“The problem is that art museums – private and semi-private institutions and foundations – are starting to compete with each other,” says Lorenz Homberger, president of the Swiss branch of the International Council of Museums (ICOM).

This means museums – which have traditionally relied on funding from Switzerland’s cantons – are feeling the squeeze.

Time to fight

Homberger warns that museums must become more involved in the fight for federal funding to ensure their survival.

“The two national associations [that represent Swiss museums] – ICOM and the Association of Swiss Museums – never got any money from the government, due to the constitution [which states that] cultural problems must be dealt with by the cantons,” says Homberger.

“We are now trying to get more involved at the national level, because I think we play a very important role in education and in safeguarding cultural property [along] with our scientific obligations,” he says.

“We want more consideration by national government.”

History buffs in every town

Museums have long played an important role in Switzerland’s cultural landscape. The museum association lists some 905 officially sanctioned institutions in its latest handbook.

All told, these museums admit some ten million visitors every year.

Homberger credits Switzerland’s strong museum tradition with the country’s long-standing historical awareness.

“It’s a fact that Switzerland has always looked to history. Every little village has its own local museum,” he says.

“We also had a very nice tradition [of] people [that were] willing to give or donate their collections and objects to museums – which is one of the reasons why in the past 150 years, museums started growing.”


But some from within Switzerland’s museum community warn of a crisis.

Mario Annoni, from canton Bern’s natural history museum, says traditional museums are feeling the competition.

“Most museums are in crisis because of stagnating budgets and falling visitor numbers,” Annoni says.

Annoni also points to the emergence of new museums – pointing out that no less than 12 big private museums have opened their doors in the past few years.

Others cite the growth of the Internet, and the possible impact of this year’s national exhibition, Expo 02.

As long as it keeps raining

Homberger, however, rejects many of these claims. The Internet has – if anything – increased the exposure of museums by giving institutions a new platform.

As for Expo 02, Homberger says there has been a slight decrease in visitor numbers to museums in host areas – such as Biel and Murten.

“But you cannot say that for the whole of Switzerland,” he says.

In fact, this summer looks as though museums have enjoyed something of a boom in popularity.

“A summer like this – with four weeks of rain – brings a lot of foreign visitors to museums,” Homberger says.

“I’m not in any way threatened by the future. We have a very good exhibition to show, we are very active in art and the historic presentation of our culture, so I’m very positive for the future.”

swissinfo, Jacob Greber

Association of Swiss Museums. Membership: 617
International Council of Museums (Swiss branch). Membership: 1047
Officially listed institutions: 905.
Estimated annual visitors: 10 million. Art galleries (33 per cent), History museums (25 per cent), Natural/Technical (25 per cent), Regional/local museums (7 per cent).
ICOM/Association conference runs September 6-7.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR