More background info:
The Swiss were comparatively late in establishing a national museum. Unlike in many other, more centralized European countries, the idea was greeted less enthusiastically in Switzerland
with its high degree of federal fragmentation into semi-autonomous ‘cantons’.
But after some personal pushing for the idea by a member of the National Council the idea began to be seriously discussed in the 1880s and in 1891 the location of the future museum in Zürich
was decided on and an architectural design drafted
Architect Gustav Gull came up with a highly historicizing type of architecture incorporating several hints towards medieval styles as well as 19th-century state-of-the-art elements. The building was completed in 1898. The exhibition inside has been updated repeatedly and now covers Swiss history almost up to the present day.
In 2016, a new wing of starkly modern design to contrast with the historicist main building was opened to house in particular temporary extra exhibitions, a library and an auditorium.
What there is to see: The museum covers all of Swiss history, but from a dark-tourism perspective only parts of the 20th century and contemporary sections are of special interest. And in the text below I will concentrate entirely on those, ignoring all earlier history.
As is to be expected in multilingual Switzerland, the museum caters very well for international visitors, with all texts and labels in English as well as the three national languages – German, French and Italian (only the tiny fourth Swiss language, Romansh, is not included).
Dark chapters of history obviously include the two world wars
of the 20th century
. Although Switzerland
remained neutral in both conflicts, during WW1
it took in civilian refugees (mainly conscientious objectors) as well as several thousand injured soldiers, despite being relatively far from the front lines to the north and east (cf. Verdun
, Switzerland, although surrounded by warring countries, again stayed neutral but took quite a restrictive stance against allowing in refugees, as the exhibition duly points out. Only some 26,000 civilians were received, almost half of those Jews, yet more than twice as many Jews were rejected. Foreign soldiers who entered the country were interned and had to do forced labour.
Two exhibits from the WWII
era are quite remarkable in this context, although both came from outside Switzerland itself. The first is a Swiss national flag
that flew over the Swiss embassy in Berlin
and shows several signs of damage and bullet holes from the Battle of Berlin of 1945. Apparently, the Swiss ambassador to Germany
didn’t do much in terms of acknowledging the persecution of Jews and the Holocaust
In contrast to that, the Swiss Vice-Consul in Budapest
, Carl Lutz
, issued life-saving papers to over 60,000 Jews and placed 72 residential buildings under the protection of the Swiss embassy. One sign marking such a building is also on display at this museum. It too bears signs of bullet marks.
During the war Swiss airspace was violated repeatedly. On display is an unexploded British incendiary bomb
dropped on Swiss territory in 1940. What was absolutely new to me is the revelation that Swiss arms manufacturers supplied weapons to both sides during WWII
until late 1944, and one specimen of a type of anti-aircraft gun
sold in large numbers is on display in the exhibition.
After WWII Switzerland apparently opened up a lot more to take in refugees. But this period was also the beginning of the Cold War
. The arms race
of the 1950s onwards also took place in neutral Switzerland. Modern weapons were purchased (e.g. French-built Mirage III fighter jets) and large fortresses
with heavy-artillery positions were dug into the mountains at various sites. One exhibit provides a glimpse into such structures. Several modern weapons are also on display.
Allegedly, Switzerland for a while even considered acquiring nuclear weapons
, but that idea was finally abandoned in 1969. Yet mandatory military service
was lengthened and at one point Switzerland had almost a million men under arms (and reservists took their rifles back home with them). Part of the civil defence
efforts included modern bunkers and all new Swiss houses famously had to include a bunker underneath it (see also Sonnenberg bunker
Speaking of nuclear – Switzerland
has endorsed nuclear power
for energy generation, with a first nuclear power plant (NPP) becoming operational in 1969. Remarkably that same facility is still in operation at the time of writing (March 2022), making it the oldest. Out of the five NPPs Switzerland had, two have meanwhile been shut down and, as in Germany
, the Fukushima
nuclear disaster triggered a plan to phase out nuclear power altogether in Switzerland (though no definitive timeline exists).
In the National Museum, the nuclear topic is mainly covered in the form of the anti-nuclear campaigns
. One exhibit in that context is a yellow barrel bearing the radioactivity warning symbol. This was a replica used by Greenpeace in a protest against the transport of spent fuel rods from the Swiss Gösgen NPP to the reprocessing plant in Sellafield
There had been protest movements in Switzerland before and the museum also covers the wild 1960s, especially the years 1967 and 1968, when student protests were sweeping through parts of Europe, in particular West Germany and France. Police brutality in containing these protests is a subject of this exhibition too.
One important element in politics which used to set Switzerland
apart from the rest of the democratic world was the fact that women
were not given the right to vote
until very late indeed. Universal suffrage at the national level wasn’t granted until 1971, and in some cantons it took until the 1990s for women to get full equality in terms of voting. This topic is also covered in the exhibition.
The most contemporary subjects dealt with in the museum concern the issues of climate change and migration. I was surprised to learn that Switzerland, despite a very tough naturalization regime, has the highest rate of immigrants within Europe in relation emigration at nearly 20%.
A chart on display in the section about climate change
that I found fascinating had a kind of calender on which the date was marked per country (well, a selection of 45 countries) when that country would have used up the available resources of the planet if all countries had the same energy consumption. On this chart, Qatar, the UAE and, surprise, Luxembourg had the earliest dates, namely in February/March, while Switzerland came in at 7 May, while countries like Cuba and Vietnam appeared only towards the end of the year in November/December.
As indicated above, the museum also covers dark periods in history that go much further back, e.g. the Thirty Years War and some smashed-in skulls are on display in the relevant section, and that can obviously also count as something for dark tourists. Topically, however, they fall out of the modern time frame adopted for this website (see the chapter concept of dark tourism
Not so dark parts of modern history also feature, for example the development of pop and rock music in Switzerland
. One wall has dozens of LP covers on display – and I admit I was familiar with only two items in this collection (namely an early album by the Swiss electro duo Yello, and a solo album by one half of that duo, vocalist Dieter Meier).
All in all, this museum is hardly an absolute must-see in terms of dark tourism, but it’s still worthwhile taking it in when in the city as it provides some interesting insights and special Swiss angles on international themes.
right in the very heart of the city at Museumstrasse 2, 8001 Zürich
, just across the road to the north of the central train station.
Access and costs: very easy to get to; inexpensive by Swiss standards
Details: The location couldn’t be easier to find – just get to the central train station, which is also served by a number of tram lines, and cross the street to the north, tellingly called Museumstrasse, and there you are.
Opening times: daily except Mondays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., until 7 p.m. on Thursdays.
Admission: 10 CHF, concession 8 CHF, children under 16 free – by Zürich’s general price levels this is very reasonable indeed.
Time required: I spent just under an hour in this museum, but was rather selective, concentrating mostly on the dark(ish) bits only. If you want to go through everything, possibly even extra temporary exhibitions you will need significantly longer.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
see under Zürich
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
The museum is very centrally located, just opposite the main train station, the pretty Old Town of Zürich
is easily reachable on foot from the museum.
- Swiss National Museum 01 - seen from the outside
- Swiss National Museum 02 - courtyard
- Swiss National Museum 03 - grand hall
- Swiss National Museum 04 - old stuff
- Swiss National Museum 05 - modern stuff
- Swiss National Museum 06 - modern technology
- Swiss National Museum 07 - old skulls
- Swiss National Museum 08 - bullet-hole riddled Swiss flag from the embassy in Berlin in WWII
- Swiss National Museum 09 - sign from the Swiss embassy in Budapest where Carl Lutz saved over 60,000 Jews
- Swiss National Museum 10 - modern war technology
- Swiss National Museum 11 - old bomb
- Swiss National Museum 12 - Red Cross
- Swiss National Museum 13 - nuclear power and protests
- Swiss National Museum 14 - climate change
- Swiss National Museum 15 - modern music
- Swiss National Museum 16 - spears of destiny