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Shipwrecks reveal rich heritage of Lake Geneva

Oil painting by Thorimbert (end of 19th century) showing the collision between the Rhone and Cygne steamers.

The first ever exhibition on the shipwrecks of Lake Geneva has opened. As well as showing the darker side of the lake, it also reveals how the boats that have sunk there give us a better understanding of the region's rich maritime traditions.

The exhibition at the Musée du Léman, or Museum of Lake Geneva, in Nyon, concentrates on 15 of the 30 wrecks that have been located at the bottom of the lake. They range from a 15th Century wooden flat-bottomed boat, found by accident during dredging work, to the steamer, Le Rhône, which sank in 1883, with the loss of 14 lives.

Le Rhône is too big, too fragile and lying at too great a depth to be brought to the surface, but some of its fittings have been restored and are part of the exhibition. Like other vessels in the exhibition, it provides a useful source of material for historians.

"These ships tells us a lot about our nautical heritage, and how the lake was used in different times," says Carinne Bertola, director of the Musée du Léman.

"The Rhône was one of three steamers to have sunk in the lake. They are all very well preserved, and they are very different from the steamers that go on the lake nowadays," she told swissinfo. "It's very interesting for us to know about the machinery, how it was built and how it worked."

This is especially true of other boats, such as sailing boats peculiar to Lake Geneva. Similar vessels are still made, but not exactly like the ones found at the bottom of the lake.

These boats also tell us much about the lives of the people who lived by this stretch of water. They were used for transporting goods - wine, cheese, wood - and people in a time when there were no motorways or railways.

"These wrecks are important because they are the last known examples of certain kinds of ship," Bertola says. "We have no written information about these boats from the time. The only way of finding out about them is from these wrecks."

She says that one of the reasons why there have been so many boats found in the lake is the fact that its shores have always been well populated. She also says that many of the shipwrecks have been due to the number of boats on the lake, as it is not an especially treacherous stretch of water.

One of the problems with shipwrecks is that people always assume they contain treasure, and Lake Geneva is no different. Many useful artefacts have been looted by divers.

"One of the purposes of the exhibition is to open a dialogue between historians and divers," Bertola says. "We want them to understand how interesting these boats are and how important it is to study them, and why we need them to understand our heritage. I've been very surprised at how well they've co-operated. They're really ready to help us find new wrecks and to hand over things they've found on them."

As well as fragments of the wrecks, the exhibition contains photographs, works of art depicting wrecks on Lake Geneva, objects salvaged from the wrecks such as the bell of the Rhône, and films of the salvage work.

The Shipwrecks exhibition is at the Musée du Léman in Nyon until March 2001.

by Roy Probert

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