History, mystery unfold at endangered alpine museums

Director of the Swiss Alpine Museum poses in front of a painting showing the fall of alpinism

Nearly every day for 20 years, Willy Hofstetter has shown visitors to the alpine museum in Zermatt the rope that apparently broke just after the first successful ascent of the Matterhorn in 1865. Four people plunged to their deaths, and over the years, writers have speculated on whether surviving climbers cut the rope to keep from being dragged over the edge with the falling victims.

This content was published on August 29, 2001 minutes

Since that accident, more than 500 people have been killed on the Matterhorn - only a fraction of the toll throughout the Alps - but that first tragedy still draws fascinated visitors, and remains the museum's most popular exhibit, despite the many other artefacts and paintings.

Largely because of the Matterhorn tragedy and a collection that includes fragments of clothing worn by the climbers involved, the Zermatt museum has become arguably the best known among the more than 200 small museums dotting the Swiss Alps.

Run mainly by volunteers like Hofstetter, most of the alpine museums focus on less spectacular aspects of the daily life mountain families once lived, displaying traditional dress, farming tools, or other artefacts.

Priceless objects

Although the museums serve as an important repository of information about the nation's mountain heritage and customs, many are in danger, and will have difficulty remaining open.

Few have the money to spend on installing modern, interactive exhibits which museum goers now expect, and they have been faced with the challenge of finding a new generation of volunteer managers willing to invest their time in maintaining the small museums.

With few exceptions, most depend on donations and entry fees to survive.

"The small and local museums do not have the money to ensure that their priceless objects are well preserved for future generations or protected against theft," says Urs Kneubühl, director of the Swiss Alpine Museum in Bern.

Many of the museums sprang from local efforts to preserve items of historical interest.

"Usually the initiative came from a few individuals in the village," Kneubühl explains. "They saw how rapidly their culture had changed, mainly in the years after the Second World War. And they wanted to save all the cultural objects they had a relation to as a child or through their parents."

The Swiss Alpine Museum in Bern, one of the few professionally run alpine museums, touches on geology, climbing and map-making, and shows visitors how mountains are affected by modern development.

Masks and a rosary

Many of the village museums focus on intriguing subjects. A new museum in the village of St Niklaus near Zermatt features local mountain guides of the 19th century.

Another museum in the Lötschen Valley focuses on carnival masks, while Lourtier near Verbier features a local pioneer of the glacial movement theory.

Grindelwald's heritage museum, meanwhile, offers a replica of Europe's first cable car, pre-dating the First World War.

At the Zermatt museum, Hofstetter relays the Matterhorn story as if the events had just occurred. "It may have been cut," he says of the displayed rope. "We don't know. I don't think it was cut, but we can't be certain!"

The leader of the climbing party, Edward Whymper, and two of his guides survived, but three British colleagues and a French guide tumbled to their deaths. The accident unleashed an outcry in Britain, and calls for a ban on mountaineering.

Whymper was never forgiven, and was suspected of cutting the rope to prevent himself from being dragged over the cliff with the others.

"Some things have never been clarified," Hofstetter continues. "Lord Douglas was never found, but a belt, his shoes and gloves were, so we don't know if he survived the fall."

The fragments of clothing belonging to Lord Francis Douglas are displayed alongside the famous rope, as well as a prayer book of Reverend Charles Hudson and the hat and rosary of guide Michel Croz.

Many of the objects in the Zermatt museum came from the collection of the 19th century hotel pioneer, Alexander Seiler, who became fascinated by the 1865 Matterhorn accident, and began to gather fragments of clothing and equipment recovered from the remains of the unlucky climbers.

by Dale Bechtel

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