Follow the flow of the rivers Sihl and Limmat into downtown Zurich, and you will arrive at a scenic fork in the water. Here is the home of the country’s newest cultural attraction: Archaeology in Switzerland, the first permanent exhibition to take up residence in the recently opened extension of the National Museum Zurich. A product of an £87-million project almost 15 years in the making, the modish renovation is well integrated into the original 19th-century building, incorporating tuff stone from the old museum façade. This construction, visible from the quiet, tree-lined courtyard that joins the two buildings, is just one of many instances of modern-historical melding in the new wing, clearly an influential design concept both inside and out.
High altitudes, lofty ambitions
Located at the end of an echoing concrete hallway, the Archaeology in Switzerland exhibition begins with a bang – or, more accurately, a flash. Visitors are immediately greeted by a shimmering aluminium sculpture of the Swiss landscape dangling from the ceiling. The rib-like orographic model consists of over 3,000 individual parts, each reflecting light in different directions and casting webbed shadows across the bare walls.
This is the signature piece of ‘Terra’, one of three thematic sections of the exhibition. As curator Luca Tori told CWA, ‘“Terra” is an emotional reference between exhibit and landscape: in order to understand people, one must first understand their habitat.’
Below the looming silver cloud, display cases highlight Switzerland’s high-altitude heritage and include flint arrowheads, a wooden bowl, and a Neolithic-early Bronze Age bark box from Schnidejoch – an ice-covered pass in the Bernese Alps.
The crux of the exhibition, however, is the ‘Homo’ section. Tori describes it as a kind a Wunderkammer (‘treasure trove’) of artefacts, covering more than 100,000 years of human history.
Artefacts from the subtle to the shiny are symmetrically arranged in swirling geometric patterns on the walls, and an illuminated path emblazoned with multilingual translations of terms such as ‘frustration’, ‘prosperity’, and ‘greed’ streams across the room. The space attempts to evoke the turbulent forces of time and humanity – deep concepts, one might argue, for a single exhibition. Nonetheless, ‘Homo’ navigates these abstract subjects without overwhelming the viewer. Artefacts are theatrically presented, with moody lighting, in simple displays.
The true stunners are the early 4th-century BC gold neckand arm-rings – the so-called ‘treasure of Erstfeld’, a votive hoard deposited in a rock crevice leading up to the Gotthard Pass (central Switzerland). The finely carved reindeer antler bâton percé, which features the oldest representational images found in Switzerland (dating back some 15,000 years), is a personal favourite of Tori. Latin nerds will also enjoy the 2nd-century AD Roman gravestone that bears the first-known mention of Zurich, in the form of STA[tionis] TURCEN[sis], shorthand for the Roman customs station at Turicum (ancient Zurich).
But Archaeology in Switzerland is a modern, technological exhibition after all, which means that it has been specially designed to be interactive and personalised for each visitor. All the showcases in ‘Homo’ are equipped with a scanner and screen, allowing viewers to access additional text (in multiple languages), films, and images for artefacts of interest. The central word-path also leads to a glass telephone booth with a looped recording of ‘I in the Silicon Age’ by Swiss philosopher Stefan Zweifel, allowing for an unexpected moment of existential pondering.
The last section, ‘Natura’, draws attention to the interrelationships between environmental and human history, with a large projection of an animated mountain-valley view backlighting several hands-on displays about animal and plant domestication. While adaptation to the natural world was certainly crucial for the occupation and development of Switzerland, ‘Natura’ is perhaps less inviting than intended: the stylised yet sterile artistic cut-outs of wheat chaffs are a little underwhelming, at least after the bounty of the ‘Homo’ section.
Luckily, ‘Natura’ is filled with useful contextual timelines relating to Swiss environmental change, and the section features organic artefacts, such as preserved wood piles dating to 3800 BC from Egolzwil (north central Switzerland). Wood, of course, was an essential source of energy and construction materials for millennia across the country.
Archaeology in Switzerland is thus a playful confluence of cultural heritage and modern art, a bold counter to the jammed and dusty museums of old. Its location within a tasteful extension to an already pleasant museum is enough of a draw for an afternoon visit, even more so considering its state-of-the-art and well-curated displays.
While the exhibition’s attempted reach – nothing short of a transformative contemplation of one’s own existence in time – is perhaps a little ethereal, especially for seasoned archaeological travellers, it is refreshing to see the ancient past so appreciated, and approached in such a purposeful and thoughtful manner. Most importantly, the National Museum Zurich represents a real and successful attempt to make an international statement about the often-forgotten archaeological heritage of Switzerland.
Leaving Archaeology in Switzerland, it is hard not to be impressed by the diverse influences – German, Italian, French, Austrian, to name just a few – that collided across this dramatic, though often harsh landscape. Much like the museum’s location at the fork of two rivers, Switzerland was a cultural crossroads, a static point in a European world in flux.
TEXT: Nicholas Bartos
This article appears in CWA 83. Read on in the magazine or click here to subscribe.