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Museums look forward to an important year

Work in progress - the Swiss National Museum in Zurich Keystone

Switzerland's national museums are expecting a year of change in 2008, with a new museums law and extensive modernisation on the agenda.

This content was published on February 27, 2008 - 15:49

After years of uncertainty, the reforms may well help usher in new era for the state-financed institutions, which are devoted to preserving Swiss heritage.

At the museums' annual news conference in Zurich on Wednesday, Andreas Spillmann, Swiss National Museum director, said that 2007 had been a good year for the group's eight members.

The number of visitors rose by 13 per cent compared with 2006, to more than 260,000. The National Museum in Zurich – the largest institution - recorded the largest increase, up by 23 per cent to 109,000 people.

Several museums, including the one in Zurich and its French-speaking counterpart at Prangins Castle, are to undergo a total transformation starting next year, it was announced. This should give the visitor a better appreciation of Switzerland, both past and present, said Spillmann.

The move comes as parliament prepares to debate a new draft law on museums. It is aimed at offering a more coherent mandate and encouraging more cooperation between institutions.

The proposal also calls for the number of museums in the group to be halved and to include Zurich, Prangins, the Forum of Swiss History in Schwyz, and the new Collections Centre just outside Zurich, which focuses on conservation and education.

Change is needed, critics say, because a lack of clear national strategy has led the group to become a hotchpotch of cultural institutions without a clear sense of purpose.

For Spillmann, the question of autonomy is key. "This law is important because it makes the whole group independent of the public administration," he told swissinfo. "This not so important for the visitors but it's important for the employees to stay flexible."

Plans for a shake-up were first presented in 2002 but run aground in parliament.

Modernisation plans

Uncertainty over museums policy has also affected plans for expansion and renovation, in particular at the Zurich museum.

Its 19th century building has long suffered from neglect and a lack of space in which to house its collections of crafts. In the mid-1990s a number of rooms had to be closed for safety reasons.

One of the wings is already being extensively renovated and is expected to be ready in 2009.

There are also plans to build a huge SFr111 million ($104 million) modern extension for temporary and special exhibitions. It needs approval by the government and requires a building permit. Funding issues are still to be decided.

"This house was built at the end of the 19th century. What we need is an extension for the temporary exhibitions which can be used in different ways - be changed and repainted or constructed differently for every exhibition. This is not possible at the moment," explained Spillmann.

Spillmann is also having thoughts on how the exhibitions can be better presented, with British museums – whose presentation he greatly admires - serving as a model.

"In one sentence – we are all here in this house fond of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London," he said.

swissinfo, Isobel Leybold-Johnson in Zurich

Swiss museums

With 1,000 venues featuring its history, culture and scientific achievements, Switzerland has the highest concentration of museums in Europe.

There are currently eight institutions forming the Swiss National Museums.

The two largest institutions are the Swiss National Museum in Zurich and the Castle of Prangins, over lake Geneva, which house over one million historical exhibits, ranging from early times to the end of the 19th century.

The other six museums are devoted to areas of special interest.

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Events in 2008

Zurich National Museum: Families – the constant is change.
How the concept of family has changed over the years.
May 16, 2008 – September 14, 2008

Prangins Castle: 10th anniversary
This year marks a decade since the national museum was housed in the castle.
A series of special events will be held this year.

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