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Weapons exhibition exposes violence of war

Visitors stand in the line of fire of some of Europe's most fearsome weapons

(Keystone)

The Swiss National Museum in Zurich has met the challenge of exhibiting its collection of historic weapons without glorifying war.

Sensitive to growing public distaste at triumphalism in the reporting of conflicts, it is presenting the weapons in a way that conveys the spirit of violence in which they were used.

The result is a complete departure from previous shows that tended to be draped with flags and trophies of war.

"In Remembrance of Weapons Past" evokes no sense of heroism whatsoever - rather it is thought provoking and at the same time disturbing.

"Our main purpose is to present the weapons in a completely new light," says curator Matthias Senn about a pilot project expected to set the scene for future displays of the museum's collections.

"We need to find new ways of showing the public that arms are and were dangerous objects," Senn told swissinfo.

"In the past exhibitions like this one featured masses of firearms, swords and other weapons from the 16th to 19th centuries, all in a spirit of patriotism.

"To do that these days would be as unacceptable as presenting them as mere objects, without taking their inherently violent potential into account."

Line of fire

For many years the old weaponry was one of the most important crowd-pullers in the museum's permanent collection, providing visitors with a climactic and patriotic finale to their tour.

The new exhibition is in three sections, the first of which consists of suits of armour suspended from the ceiling. Next comes the centrepiece - well over 1,000 halberds, pikes, swords and firearms, also suspended on wires, and all pointing towards a small circle on the floor beneath.

To stand in the circle is a somewhat disturbing experience. Visitors can feel themselves in the line of fire of some of the most fearsome weapons of past European wars.

The third section - enclosed under a large white fabric cover - contains etchings by the 17th century artist Jacques Caillot of scenes from the 30 Years' War, which are among the most graphic portrayals of that long and brutal conflict.

To round off their visit, members of the public are invited to fill in questionnaires.

"It's important for us to learn from our visitors so that future exhibitions can also, like this one, stir the emotions and make people think about what they have witnessed," said Senn.

"In Remembrance of Weapons Past" ends on July 13.

swissinfo, Richard Dawson

In brief

The exhibition is a pilot project in the run-up to the planned restructuring of the Swiss National Museum and will inspire its future layout.

Recourse to past heroism is now regarded as being as unacceptable as an exhibition presenting weapons as mere objects, without taking account of their inherently violent potential.

"In Remembrance of Weapons Past" is aimed at arousing in visitors a sense of danger, and an understanding of violence inflicted and suffered.

The weapons collection of the National Museum is among the biggest and most varied collections of its kind in Switzerland.

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