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Sleeping beauty

Below the surface, the picturesque museum is showing its age (swissinfo)

It may resemble a fairytale castle from the outside, but life at Switzerland's national museum is anything but a dream.

Cramped, dilapidated and outdated, the museum is now facing a massive overhaul to bring it in line with its foreign competitors.

"The museum certainly has character and history," says director Andres Furger, "but in operational terms it comes nowhere near modern expectations. It was designed in the late 19th century and the concept of museums has changed a good deal since then.

"There is no extra space for special exhibitions, the entrance hall leaves a lot to be desired and the display rooms themselves are all just bundled up in a row. Quite apart from the layout, we have to struggle with an old heating system, bursting radiators and cracks in the walls - so there's a whole range of problems to deal with."

Relief

To the relief of Furger and his staff, these problems - like the contents of the museum itself - should soon be a thing of the past.

Despite a number of recent setbacks, including a government decision to delay funding for the museum's renovation, Furger is confident that the refurbished museum and brand new extension will be ready to open by 2010.

And he points out that the delay in government funding for the SFr130 million refit was offset by the cabinet's recommendation that the entire national museum group be converted into a public foundation, allowing the eight museums within the group much greater freedom to operate.

Foundation for the future

"We're currently under the administration of the department of culture," Furger explains, "and, just as with the building problems, that doesn't really correspond to modern-day demands.

"Most of Europe's national museums operate as foundations now - many of them were even set up that way. And if the changes are approved by parliament, we will have a lot more room to manoeuvre and a lot more to offer backers - whether they be patrons, sponsors or cultural and scientific institutions."

While the delayed government funding for the rebuilding work at the museum was directly related to the perceived need for cuts in public spending, Furger insists that the museum group's restructuring should not be seen in a similar light - for now, at least.

"The setting up of the foundation is not being combined with any cuts in government funding and we've been promised similar levels of state funding (around SFr20 million a year) for the next four years. But clearly the government's long-term policy is to give more freedom to institutions rather than more money, and this latest recommendation can be seen against this background."

Public to benefit

But if it means giving up his duties as the ageing museum's plumber, electrician and all-round maintenance man, Furger seems happy to take on some extra fund-raising responsibilities. And he's sure that the public will also benefit from the changes in store.

"The Swiss people travel around a lot and they've seen what the museums in London, Barcelona and the like have to offer, and that's the bench-mark against which we're currently being measured. Right now the museum in Zurich offers no kind of calling card for Swiss culture but we aim to make sure that it does in the future."

It seems a happy ending could yet be in store for the fairytale castle.

swissinfo, Mark Ledsom in Zurich

Museum

The museum refit and expansion are expected to cost SFr130 million.
The revamped headquarters are due to open in 2010.
The government plans to re-designate the national museum group as a foundation.

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