Colorful clues to Swiss pride and patriotism -- at the National Museum in Zurich
Zurich — Individuals, of course, aren't born with a sense of nationality. They identify themselves with a nation as a result of education by their parents, their teachers -- and, often to some extent, a national museum. Many nations have such museums. Schoolchildren are steered through their displays of national archaeological finds, historical artifacts, and various cultural objects.
For the traveler, the national museum can be a quick way of acquiring a deeper perception of a national sense of identity, of the reason why a people loves its country and feels a national pride.
Here in Switzerland, the Swiss National Museum (Landesmuseum) is housed in a castle-like structure next to the main railway station.
Of course, for many, the major attraction of Zurich is shopping. The city is famous for its abundance of luxury goods. They look for watches, handbags, silver goods, a Swiss Army knife, fine chocolates, china, and crystal in the stores along Bahnhofstrasse or its side streets. The number of women wearing expensive fur coats here seems much higher than in the United States, where many are troubled by the idea of encouraging an industry that results in the killing of animals.
Others may use Zurich as a launching pad for excursions into the country. For instance, the Uetilberg Railway runs from a suburb to a mountaintop offering superb views. It takes about 25 minutes one way.
But many travelers enjoy an hour or two in a museum. The National Museum here in no way matches in scale or complexity or modernity the Smithsonian Institution museums in Washington. It doesn't even have a proper museum store, which is almost obligatory for major American museums. There are only some post cards and a few books available at the cloakroom. Nonetheless, the Landesmuseum is fascinating.
Opened in 1898, the museum was built to harmonize with the station next door. The wing next to the station is about the same height as the station building, and the wedge-shaped courtyard of the museum was proportioned to the size of the station. But construction at the station will change that. And the museum itself has plans to expand.
On entering the museum, the first display the visitor sees is one of medieval armor. Like most nations, Switzerland has had to fight to preserve or obtain its nationhood, although its political neutrality has preserved it from invasion in modern times.
Next to the knights in their metal finery is a model of the Battle of Morat, June 22, 1476. Toy soldiers, lined up on the battlefield, show how the Army of the Swiss confederates, with their Alsatian and Lothringian allies, defeated the troops of the Burgundian ruler, Duke Charles the Bold. His plans to expand his territory into a big Lothringian kingdom situated between the German Empire and the French Kingdom were crushed on that day.
The museum, which is free, provides printed sheets in German, and often French and English, describing many of the displays. The one here notes: ``The territory of Switzerland was once again left on its own. And the liberty of action gained therewith was secured by the military glory that nobody contested for many decades.''
In another room, the uniforms of Swiss mercenaries are shown. Also there are models of the Swiss guard at the Vatican. Despite their neutrality, the Swiss retain a certain pride in their martial prowess.
Nowadays, all fit Swiss men serve in the military until their 50s. After their initital conscription and training, they take time out from regular employment each year for exercises and courses.
Notes a brochure: ``Every soldier has his weapon, ammunition and uniform at home. There is no fear of revolutions. The Swiss are proud to have an accurate rifle.''
While I was in Zurich, a Swiss friend just reached the age for retirement from the Army. The occasion was marked with a special ceremony, at which he turned in his gun and ammunition.
Besides military artifacts, the museum included some beautiful tiled stoves, used to heat rooms in grand old homes, and a number of carved and painted wooden ``Schr"anke,'' or cupboards, which would certainly be prized today by any collector of antique furniture.
There are gold dishes, vessels, and chalices. Also, a few examples of ancient cutlery. In the old days, knives, forks, and spoons were sufficiently valuable that individuals carried around a personal set when traveling. These were stuck (in German, the verb is ``stecken'') into a special case or quiver on a belt. Today, the German word for silverware remains Besteck, although Swiss Germans and other Germans no longer need to carry around a set of silverware.
Since this is Switzerland, there is a collection of hourglasses, old clocks, and watches. But it is surprisingly small.
One outstanding feature of the museum is its old rooms, dating from the 1500s through the 1800s. For example, you can walk into the early baroque reception room of Heinrich Lochmann, an officer in the French Army who was raised to nobility in 1656 for his services in Spain. The house from which this room was taken was in Zurich near the lakefront. Lochmann put his stamp on the room by having the ceiling, as well as the upper section of the walls, decorated with paintings of classical war heroes (such as Vulcan, the god of fire, and Achilles) and of some of his acquaintances and famous contemporaries. The woodwork in this room and the others is glorious.
Other displays show the clothing and life styles of earlier periods. There are glassed-in drawing rooms of La Belle Epoque (late 1800s, early 1900s) and of the 1770-80 period. Exhibits show the marketplace in Zurich in 1800, a 1750 cr`eche from Nesslau in the canton of St. Gall, and peasants in their regional costumes -- their Sunday best, we might say.
One exhibition presents medieval seals in their historic context. It offers examples of the materials used, the various kinds of seals, and methods of attachment.
In the basement are found exhibits of Switzerland in the neolithic age, the Bronze Age, and Roman times. One thing that stood out to me was a stone-roofed, wooden hut with models of a neolithic man and a sheep inside, warmed and lighted by a small fire.
Perhaps schoolchildren being ushered through the museum think of that man as an ancient Swiss, and say to themselves with some pride: ``We Swiss have made great progress.''