A Drop in the Ocean of Knowledge: Neuchâtel Ethnography

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Ethnographic Museum, Musée d’ethnographie de Neuchâtel, Neuchâtel, Switzerland

You never quite know what you’re going to get with museums in Switzerland.  Sometimes they are surprisingly fascinating.  Sometimes they’re pretty good.  Very rarely are they without any redeeming features, especially if they’re about ethnology.

I think it’s probably a bit mean to say that there were no redeeming features in Neuchatel’s Ethnological Museum – after all, there were some genuinely charming/bizarre objects on show.  But it is perhaps one of the least satisfying places I’ve visited – basically because there’s not much to see.

In 1795, the Cabinet of Natural History was given to the city by General Charles Daniel de Meuron.  This formed the basis of the current museum’s collection, and it was moved about several times before getting a permanent home in the villa of James-Ferdinand de Pury in 1904.  In 1955 they opened a building for temporary exhibitions, and in 1986 another building was inserted between the two to make room for the University’s Institute of Ethnology.  The result is architecturally unharmonious and as you go in the main entrance, you find yourself in a strangely neglected-looking space that was sort of closed off.  Not sure what was going on there.

Anyway, after the tatty start, the rest of the museum is impressively well-designed.  Care and thought have gone into making what they have look great, with good lighting and engaging displays.  The museum has 50,000 objects and on their website they highlight some fantastic things…. which we didn’t see.  What we did see was good, and it was interesting, for example, to see objects that were given during diplomatic meetings between Switzerland and other countries.

Ichoumamini Exhibition

When we visited, there was an exhibition called Ichoumamini, curated by the students of the local Institute of Ethnology.  In April 1938, the 30 year old Jean Gabus set off on a one-man Swiss ethnographic mission to Hudson Bay, Canada. The aim of this reporter was to live with the ‘Caribou Eskimos’. During his 18 month study, the future MEN curator assembled an ethnographic collection that included artefacts and photographs as well as sound recordings and films, some of which were being shown at the exhibition.

It was pretty thorough, by the looks of it, but it was all in French and I was tired and couldn’t be bothered to slog through the informative boards.  A book to take home would have been good.  My understanding is that the exhibition will continue through 2019, but I couldn’t find an end date.

So In Summary

I was, as you can tell, quite disappointed with the museum.  I love ethnographic collections, and can usually spend hours wallowing in the wonders of the world.  We didn’t wallow – there wasn’t much to wallow in.  Other visitors went past us like a shot, and we thought we were going fast.  However, I gather they are building a new exhibition space and so the whole museum will probably be opened up and allow for more of the collection to be on display.  That would be jolly nice.

Further Information

The museum’s website is only in French and is pretty good at giving you the basic information alongside some more specialist stuff you may be after: www.men.ch

What I did find strange was that some panels were written in English but the tags weren’t.  These panels were more about empty theory than about facts, so not terribly informative.  It’s a shame that non-French speakers miss out on explanations – hopefully they’ll get around to translating the useful stuff too.

How To Get There

The museum is a little away from the main heart of town, up on the hilly section.  There is a bus, the 101, that goes to the MEN stop, and you can find more info here (French only): www.transn.ch


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