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Exhibition reveals Swiss obsession with exhibitions

The exhibition reveals much about Swiss attitudes and values over the past century Keystone

Amid the controversy over Switzerland's national exhibition, Expo 02, an exhibition charting the history of previous Expos has opened at the Federal Archives in Berne. It reveals much about Swiss identity over the past 115 years.

The Berne exhibition gives a good picture of Switzerland’s values, preconceptions and prejudices over more than a century. Visitors can see historic posters, photographs, films, and exhibits of the five national exhibitions staged since the late 19th century.

The exhibits are displayed on top of large metal chests, with each row representing one of the five national exhibitions staged since 1883.

Below these are drawers containing what some may think are more interesting aspects of the Expos’ history: documents relating to abandoned projects, and projects which were refused, as well as information about decisions taken behind closed doors and public criticism of the exhibitions.

The collection is also interesting for what it excludes. “Expos show the sunny side of Switzerland,” says historian Guido Koller of the Federal Archives. “Conflicts were a non-issue for a long time”.

In fact, it was not until 1964 – the most recent Expo – that a political controversy, over immigrants, was included in the programme of a national exhibition.

The first Expo took place in 1883 in Zurich and was based on the industrial exhibitions then fashionable throughout Europe. Switzerland had by then completed the Gotthard tunnel – the country’s largest railway project at the time – and the federal government was keen to champion its growing role in the economy.

Other exhibitions took place in 1896 in Geneva, in 1914 in Berne, in 1939 in Zurich, and in 1964 in Lausanne. Their size grew along with their budgets: from SFr2 million in the 19th century to SFr8.5 million in 1914 and SFr17 million in 1939. Expo 64 was budgeted at SFr87 million but wound up costing SFr187 million.

While world exhibitions were and are still staged – witness Expo 200 in Hannover – no nation has been as eager as Switzerland to hold national exhibitions. The Berne exhibition doesn’t throw any light on the reasons for this Swiss penchant but it does allow for some interesting historical comparisons.

For instance, Expos were remembered mainly because of what they offered in entertainment. The 1896 Expo featured a “Negro’s Village”. During the “Landi” of 1939, otherwise famous for its emphasis on what came to be known as the “mental defence” of the nation, visitors could cross Lake Zurich by cable car. Expo 64, which attracted many foreign visitors, presented the world’s first tourist submarine.

Another common feature of all the national exhibitions was a section devoted to the Swiss army. As the Berne exhibition proves, the army always wanted more space than had been agreed.

Probably the most famous project associated with a national exhibition – and one which was rejected – was a proposal to found an entirely new model city between Lausanne and Geneva instead of staging an exhibition.

Lucius Burckhardt, one of the planners involved, will give a rare speech in October as part of a series of events organised by the Federal Archives to accompany their exhibition.

The Federal Archives have also published a 240-page illustrated book (“Ideen, Interessen, Irritationen”, Federal Archives Dossier #12) with reports and essays. The exhibition at Archivgasse 24, Berne, is open until the end of October.

by Markus Haefliger

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR