It all began with the "Bird Library": the Museum then and now

History

Naturhistorisches Museum Bern, Geschichte, Tierpräparator Ruprecht und Lehrling sind am arbeiten
The taxidermist Georg Ruprecht and his apprentice Walter Schlier created their own little kingdom in the basement rooms.
NMBE
Pictures

The Natural History Museum Bern is the oldest museum in Bern. It made its name with dioramas of large African game animals and fauna native to Switzerland, and has attracted attention in recent years for its contemporary exhibitions and unconventional outreach and PR work.

The Natural History Museum Bern is one of the most important nature museums in Switzerland. Its historical exhibitions of native and exotic animals are unique in Central Europe and form the basis of the institution's international reputation. The Museum, which is owned by the Community of Burghers of Bern (Burgergemeinde Bern), has made a name for itself in recent years with attractive themed exhibitions such as the prizewinning "c'est la vie" (from 2007) - a fascinating exploration of life and death. One of the NHMB's best known exhibits is Barry, the world-famous rescue dog to whom the Museum recently dedicated a whole exhibition. The stunning giant crystals from the Planngenstock peak are another highlight. The Museum is extremely family-friendly and provides numerous services and activities for parents and children. It also puts on a colourful programme of events which goes by the intriguing heading "Help, it's alive!" Fancy a drink at the "Dead animal bar", for example? The Museum currently employs around 70 people, over 20 of whom work in the science sections and are responsible for managing the collections and undertaking independent research.

But let's go back in time. The Natural History Museum Bern (NHMB) has its origins in a cabinet of curiosities set up at the end of the 17th century in the city library. As the collections of minerals, rocks, coins, dried plants and mollusc shells grew, a gallery was added to the library (1773-75) in order to display them. These exhibition rooms were popularly known as the "Bird Library" thanks to the extensive bird collection contributed by pastor Daniel Sprüngli.

The NHMB was officially founded in 1832, when the city council voted to set up an independent Museum Commission that would be separate from the Library Commission. Before this, the natural history collections and the historical and ethnographic collections had been one. The NHMB is thus the oldest museum in Bern.  

The next milestone in the NHMB's development was the "separation agreement" of 1852 in which all the possessions of the former city state of Bern were divided up between the "municipality of residents" and the community of burghers. The agreement saw the Burgergemeinde become the sole owner of the museum collections. Once the dried plants had been moved to the new Botanic Gardens, the NHMB was left with the geological and zoological collections. 

Bursting at the seams

In its almost 200-year history, the NHMB has had to move three times due to a lack of space. In 1882 it relocated from the library gallery to a new building opposite the art gallery, and in 1934 to its current premises in Bernastrasse. The Bernastrasse site was the result of a "swap" with the Telegraph Authority, which had also outgrown its offices and offered the Burgergemeinde a large sum of money for the Hodlerstrasse site in order to expand. This enabled the Burgergemeinde to construct a five-storey horseshoe-shaped building on the newly acquired plot between the History Museum and the National Library. The NHMB's needs with regard to space had changed drastically with the arrival of the dioramas, and the new building was designed to reflect this. Architecturally, it is regarded as a prime example of the Modern style. "The Natural History Museum, which has much in common with an industrial building in being purpose-built specifically to accommodate a particular concept, constitutes, in its enlightened objectivity and absolute rejection of monumentality, an important contribution to Swiss Modernism." (Swiss Architecture Guide 1992-96).

The role of the dioramas

Who knows what direction the NHMB would have taken had it not been approached at the beginning of the 20th century by the big game hunter Bernard von Wattenwyl. A burgher of Bern, von Wattenwyl lived in London but offered to donate to the Museum everything he bagged on a planned hunting trip to Africa if the Museum would pay the freight costs. With regard to the presentation of the animals, he suggested that dioramas be built - large display cases with a painted background which show the animals in their natural habitat.  

The Museum accepted the offer, and in 1923, von Wattenwyl travelled to East Africa as planned. After his tragic death, his daughter Vivienne, who had accompanied him on the expedition, saw the safari through to the end and ultimately presented the Museum with 134 skins, skulls and horns stemming from 53 mammal species.

Von Wattenwyl's impressive legacy was to be instrumental in shaping the Museum. Shortly after the opening of the Wattenwyl room (1936), the NHMB put parts of its insect collection, its mineral collection, its fossil collection and its collection of Swiss fauna on display. The Museum had gone from being a purely scientific institution to one which hosted public exhibitions, and it attracted crowds from near and far.  

The new building becomes the old building

As the years passed, the Museum gradually outgrew its new home. When the Bernastrasse premises opened, the Museum had employed ten people. By 1984, it had a staff of 34. The building had been designed to house the permanent exhibition constituted by the dioramas, and now there was a lack of space not only for offices and work rooms, but also for temporary thematic exhibitions.

An extension was built onto the east side of the original building, and in 1998, the NHMB was finally able to breathe out again. The new building created much-needed infrastructure, addressed the planning mistakes of 1932 and prepared to see the Museum into next millennium. The architectural significance of the 1930s complex naturally influenced the extension and conversion work which went on in the 1990s. A physical separation was created between the area accessible to the public and the office and lab space, and between the scientific collections and those on public display. The basement was turned into a modern two-storey depot offering optimum storage conditions for the over 6.5 million specimens now in the Museum's possession. The NHMB at last found itself with enough office space, laboratories and workshops to maintain the standard of research for which it was now renowned.

In with the sensuous – the Museum today

After the extension opened in 1998, the process began of modernizing the permanent exhibitions. The historical dioramas, however, were consciously left in their original state, partly because they were among the few displays that were still completely intact, and partly because of the sheer quality of their artistry and design.

In 2011 under the current director Dr. Christoph Beer, the Natural History Museum adopted a fresh outreach strategy aimed at attracting new groups of the population to the Museum, and at conveying information about natural history-related topics in an enticing and unexpected way. The approach could be described as "out with the intellectual, in with the sensuous". More special and temporary exhibitions are planned in order to increase the dynamism of the Museum, and unconventional events are another pillar of a strategy which is already showing clear signs of success. In 2016, the Museum broke its own visitor record by clocking up 130,945 admissions.  

2017 will go down as another important year in the NHMB's history as the Museum begins to take over the remaining floors of the extension - areas previously occupied by external tenants. By 2019, the Museum will have 1,200 m2 more display space at its disposal, which will finally allow it to increase the size of its special exhibitions. November 2017 will see the opening of the five-year exhibition "Apocalypse" on the third floor, and in 2019, the NHMB will claim the second floor too, which currently serves as a depot for the History Museum Bern.

Lack of space means relocation, relocation, relocation

Over the course of its almost 200-year history, the Natural History Museum of Bern (NMBE) has had to move three times owing to lack of space: originally housed in a library gallery, it moved to a new building opposite the Museum of Fine Arts in 1882; in 1934, a new museum was opened in Bernastrasse, where it has remained to this day. The Bernastrasse building was obtained through a land exchange with the Swiss Telegraph Directorate, which bought the property on Hodlerstrasse for its own expansion project. The proceeds of the sale allowed the municipality of Bern to build a horseshoe-shaped building on the newly acquired plot, between the Bernisches Historisches Museum [Bern History Museum] and the State Library. The five-storey building was much more suitable for housing the museum’s many dioramas. It was considered a prime example of modern architecture. ‘The Natural History Museum of Bern has been constructed very much with its purpose in mind, giving it much in common with industrial buildings, and it represents an important contribution to Swiss modernism, thanks to its clear definition, monumental nature and lofty practicality.’ (Schweiz. Architekturführer 1992–96 [Guide to Swiss Architecture]).

The impact of the dioramas

Who knows what direction the NMBE might have taken if the big game hunter Bernard von Wattenwyl had not joined the public institution in the early 20th century? Originally from Bern, but living in London, he offered the museum whatever he bagged from a forthcoming expedition to Africa – if, in turn, the museum was prepared to pay the shipping costs. He suggested using dioramas to exhibit the animals to the public. These large display cases present the animals against a painted backdrop, as if in their natural environment.

The museum accepted his offer, and von Wattenwyl travelled to East Africa in 1923. After his tragic death, his daughter, Vivienne, who accompanied him on the expedition, saw the project through to completion. She gave the NMBE 134 skins, skulls, horns and antlers from 53 species of mammal. Von Wattenwyl’s impressive legacy had a significant impact on the development of the museum. The opening of the Wattenwyl room (1936) was soon followed by a permanent collection of insects, the mineral collection, palaeontology room, and a museum of local history. The NMBE had become a collection of exhibitions, drawing visitors from far and wide.

The new building becomes an old building

As the decades passed, the needs of the expanding museum outgrew the building. When the building in Bernastrasse opened, the museum had ten employees. By 1984, this number had increased to 34. The building had been designed to house exhibitions, with permanent diorama displays – not only did it lack space for temporary, themed exhibitions, but it also lacked office space.

The new building, which was opened in 1998, therefore represented another milestone for this institution of the municipality of Bern. Expansion on the eastern side of the building finally created the infrastructure the museum required, correcting the planning mistakes of 1932 and preparing the museum to move forward into the new millennium.

The historic architectural significance of the 1930s’ building complex was the basis and inspiration for the expansion and renovation project in the 1990s. The public areas and offices were separated from one another, as were the scientific and permanent exhibitions. Modern storage rooms were created over a number of floors in the basement, providing ideal storage for the museum’s 6.5 million items. Finally, the NMBE had sufficient offices, laboratories and workshops for its research, for which it has earned an excellent reputation in recent decades.

Introducing sensory experiences – the museum today

The permanent exhibitions have been continually updated since the opening of the new museum in 1998. The historic dioramas, however, have been kept in their original state. This is partly because they are some of the few fully-preserved dioramas of their kind and partly because of their highly creative and artistic qualities.

In 2011, under the current Museum Director, Dr Christoph Beer, the Natural History Museum adopted a new strategy. It aims to redouble its publicity efforts to attract new audiences to the museum and to convey natural history topics in an appealing and surprising way – based on the concept of ‘less cerebral, more sensory’. The museum wants to create a more dynamic experience for visitors with more special and temporary exhibitions. Unconventional events form another element of the strategy. The new strategy has clearly been a success: in 2016, the museum received a record-breaking 130,945 visitors.

2017 will go down as a significant year in the history of the museum, because the final two floors of the extension that was opened in 1998 were finally occupied. The upper floors had been rented out to other parties after the opening. By 2019, the exhibition space will be expanded by an additional 1,200 square metres – finally providing enough space for large special exhibitions. In November 2017, the ‘Apocalypse’ exhibition opened on the third floor and will run for five years. In 2019, the second floor will also be used. It is currently being used as a storage facility for the Bernisches Historisches Museum.

Important figures

Johann Rudolf Zeender (1650-1730)

The founder of the first public natural history collection in Bern. As a member of both the Grand Council of Burghers and the Library Commission, he ordered that space be made available in the town library for a cabinet of (natural) curiosities which opened in 1694.

Daniel Sprüngli (1721-1801)

As well as an impressive collection of fossils, this renowned natural scientist and clergyman owned the most comprehensive bird collection in Switzerland, comprising over 200 species. After his death, the birds were put on display in the cabinet of curiosities. Sprüngli's handwritten work "Ornithologia Helvetica" is now kept in Bern library.

Jakob Samuel Wyttenbach (1748-1830)

A clergyman and pioneer of nature research in Bern, Wyttenbach was one of the founder members of the Swiss Society of Nature Research, a precursor of today's Swiss Academy of Natural Sciences. His interests were many and varied, and from time to time he even taught at Bern University's Institute of Medicine, which opened in 1798.

Samuel Emanuel Studer (1757-1834)

Samuel Emmanuel Studer is regarded as one of the leading mollusc researchers of his day. His collection is preserved at the NHMB and continues to be of value to scientists. As a member of the Library Commission, he was a tireless campaigner for the natural history collection housed in the library gallery.  

Bernhard Rudolf Studer (1794-1887)

Bernhard Rudolf Studer was professor of geology and mineralogy at the University of Bern. A keen mountaineer, Professor Studer served as the curator of the NHMB's geological section for half a century, and was also instrumental in developing various regional geological collections.

Edmund von Fellenberg (1838-1902)

Edmund von Fellenberg was a mining engineer, geologist, archaeologist and mountaineer, custodian of the Museum's ethnographic collection (1866 - 1882) and head of its geological section. He owned a private collection of minerals comprising several thousand samples which he donated to the Museum in 1881. This turned what had been a rather insignificant regional collection into one of European standing.

Theophil Studer (1845-1922)

Theophil Studer was a curator at the Museum from 1871, and professor of zoology and comparative anatomy at the School of Veterinary Medicine in Bern from 1878. For 50 years (1872-1922) he held an additional office as curator of the Museum's zoological collections. He was a member of the Museum Commission, and then the Commission's president from 1911 until his death.

Eduard Gerber (1876-1956)

Eduard Gerber headed the geological section of the Museum for many years (1907 - 1955), publishing well over 100 scientific papers on palaeontology and the geology of the canton of Bern during this time. When the new building opened in Bernastrasse in 1934, he played a key role in setting up the exhibitions.  

Bernard von Wattenwyl (1877-1924)

Bernard von Wattenwyl was a keen hunter who offered to go to Africa and bring back some big game animals for the museum in his native Bern to display. He wanted them to be exhibited in dioramas - copies of their natural habitat, and Franz Baumann, then director of the Museum, agreed. The project led to new premises being built, the setting up of the Association of Friends of the Museum, and to a shift in the focus of the Museum's activities. Bernard von Wattenwyl died during the safari, but with the help of local hunters and porters, his daughter Vivienne was able to complete the mission successfully.

Vivienne von Wattenwyl (1900-1957)

As a young woman, Vivienne von Wattenwyl accompanied her father on a big game safari to East Africa (1923 - 24). The animals they brought back were to be displayed at the Natural History Museum in Bern - where they remain one of the institution's most important collections. Upon the death of her father, Vivienne, who was just 24 at the time, took over the leadership of the expedition and didn't return home until she had personally bagged a white rhino in the Nile valley. Afterwards, she detailed her experiences in two books ("Out in the Blue" and "Speak to the Earth") which were read avidly in the English-speaking world by fans including Ernest Hemingway. Vivienne later turned her back on hunting and became a passionate nature conservationist. She died of cancer in England in 1957 after a fairly reclusive life as a mother, journalist and writer. Her biography forms the basis of Lukas Hartmann's novel "Die Tochter des Jägers" (The Hunter's Daughter) and of the ballet "Hunting Me" by Cathy Marston, first performed in 2011 at the Konzert Theater Bern. 

Franz Baumann (1885-1961)

As head of the zoological section, Franz Baumann oversaw the building of the new premises in Bernastrasse and the reorganisation of the Museum made necessary by the arrival of the von Wattenwyls' large African game collection. The success of the Africa dioramas led Baumann to start presenting native mammals and birds in dioramas too. In 1943, he was appointed the first fulltime director of the Museum.  

Georg Ruprecht (1887-1968)

Georg Ruprecht was an exceptional taxidermist involved in the presentation of the big game animals. Together with drawing instructor Heinrich Würgler, he was responsible for designing the African landscapes in which the animals are presented. Although neither of the men had ever been to Africa and had to rely on black and white photographs, even experts consider the dioramas to be astonishingly true-to-life.

Walter Huber (1917-1984)

Walter Huber joined the NHMB as entomological curator in 1951. He was appointed director in 1964, at which point the Museum's zoological collections were divided up into today's vertebrate and invertebrate sections. In his capacity as director, Huber, a game biologist, pushed for the establishment of a hunting museum – the Swiss Game and Hunting Museum at Schloss Landshut, which opened in 1968. The last major project in which he was involved, the planning of the extension of the Bernastrasse premises, was not actually realised until several years after his death.  

Collections

The scientific collections comprise over 6 million specimens and fill two entire basement floors. They are used by the Museum's scientists and external experts.

  • Vertebrates — 68 824 specimens including 27 209 birds and 19 954 mammals
  • Invertebrates — approximately 5.5 million specimens including 1 million butterflies, 600 000 beetles and 3 million gastropods and bivalves
  • Minerals, rocks and meteorites — approximately 70 000 specimens in total
  • Fossils — approximately 380 000 specimens
  • Oldest bird specimen — long-tailed skua, Thunersee, 1797
  • Oldest mammal specimen — lynx, 1804
  • Largest mammal specimen — fin whale, skeleton 18.2 m (on display in the Great Bone Cabinet)
  • Smallest mammal specimen — Etruscan shrew, 45 mm