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The fruits of our ancestors labour

An apple is not just something to keep the doctor away. It can also provide a rare insight into Swiss rural life more than a hundred years ago. A mechanical apple peeler has been put on display in the 'hands on' house at Ballenberg.

The unassuming apple-peeler is part of a new concept that Ballenberg, Switzerland's largest open air museum, has launched this year. Of the many reassembled historic farmhouses, one large building from canton Aargau has become the 'hands-on' house. Visitors are not only allowed to see exhibits, but to use them, play or work with them.

In the bedrooms, visitors are encouraged to dress up in traditional clothing, including nightshirts, and to try out the old-fashioned beds. Depending on the season, visitors can also help tend and harvest the vegetable garden, feed the livestock, chop wood, light a fire in the stove or mend the thatched roof.

An odd rattling noise draws visitors back to the kitchen. An apple is stuck onto a rotator, and a handle turned, sending a peeling knife spiralling down the length of the fruit. A skilled housewife could process a dozen apples or so a minute, and she had to be fast. During harvest, huge quantities of apples were processed for cakes and preserves in the apple-rich regions of Switzerland.

The hands-on approach is designed to appeal to children. They can learn how to take straw left over from the roof and stuff sacks and old clothes to make scarecrows. Even the punishment of being shut in a dark attic cupboard "for being naughty" can be re-lived. At Ballenberg, there is a one-minute time limit for those willing to experience the harsh treatment.

The Ballenberg staff has dug deep into their stocks to make this year's special exhibition possible. "Normally, museums are meant to preserve items for all eternity," explained Edwin Huwyler, head of the science unit at Ballenberg.

"But we get about forty phone-calls a week from people who empty some attic or other and are stuck with an ancient piece of furniture or a pile of old tools". Instead of just storing the items, Huwyler and his crew decided they could put them to use. Ballenberg has so many that it doesn't matter if they break.

Emerging from the hands-on house, visitors are asked to keep their hands to themselves while visiting the other 90 or so traditional houses scattered over an area 7 kilometres long. The buildings are originals from across Switzerland and have been scrupulously reassembled at Ballenberg.

Ballenberg is open until October and features monthly events such as traditional markets and Thanksgiving festivities. In July and August, a dramatised version of a famous 19th century novel, Jeremias Gotthelf's "Käserei in der Vehfreude", will be staged in the open, making full use of the buildings and landscape.

The Ballenberg museum is situated just outside Brienz in the Bernese Oberland.

by Markus Haefliger


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