A piece of Swiss cultural history

A piece of Swiss cultural history

The importance of the Open-Air Museum Ballenberg for today’s Switzerland

by Thomas Kaiser

Anyone visiting the Open-Air Museum Ballenberg is given an impressive and memorable experience. A further stimulus is added to the visit if it takes place on the First of August, i.e. the Swiss national holiday. The speeches given amidst this Swiss cultural assets create an atmosphere that touches the soul – as I had the chance to experience this year. The Ballenberg Museum is not a Swiss miniature, but on 66 ha the visitor gets an impression of the Confederates’ traditional construction art and craftsmanship of the last almost 700 years. One faces the achievements effected by our forefathers with respect and esteem.
The oldest house displayed here origins from the Canton of Schwyz and is almost 700 years old1, a fact which alone gives rise to a certain reverence for our ancestors’ skills. If you take your time to look a little more closely at the farms and homes from different historical periods and different regions of Switzerland and to carry your mind back to those times, you will get an impression of the enormous diversity of Switzerland, of its architecture and the abilities of its people. What is shown here on smallest space reflects what National Councillor Ruedi Lustenberger, President of the Patronage Committee of the Ballenberg Museum, expressed in his speech on 1 August: “Here, on this 66-hectare site, we meet the Swiss Confederation with its rich history and manifold culture. Each canton is to be found in the form of at least one historically valuable object. Each and every Swiss man and woman will find an object of special interest and attraction – I for example knew the Escholzmatt farmhouse when it still stood on its original site. You feel at home in the Open-Air Museum and proud of your own regional, cantonal, and especially our national history.”2

The foresight seems to have been lost

With our present standards and technical capabilities we can hardly appreciate what people accomplished back then. If you erect a house or barn today, you will only in the rarest of cases expect this to last for a hundred years, or even for two or three hundred. Frequently homes, office buildings and other modern buildings are pulled down again after 20, 30,or 40 years, because the user requirements have changed or because materials were used which have turned out to be toxic by now. In agriculture old stables often have to be replaced by new ones because, according to EU standards (!), they are a few centimetres too short for the livestock and therefore need to be torn down or completely rebuilt. The foresight that was still inherent in the people of three or four hundred years ago seems to have been lost, and everything is geared towards speed and ephemerality. So from the present time, hardly any such typical and well-preserved houses will be left to posterity.
The buildings now on display at Ballenberg were dismantled at their original location, transported to their new one and there faithfully reconstructed, so that the visitors are able to ramble from one canton to another over short distances and within a very short time and thus to get closely involved with these manifold samples of the art of construction.

Feel the spirit of the past

In connection with the materials that were used it is noticeable that wooden houses are no less durable than those made of stone. Already 300 years ago the sizes of houses was an expression of some prosperity, as it is today – although the situation in those times can hardly be compared to ours. Farmhouses and stables are completely different in architecture and design depending on the region they come from, but the central place in almost all the houses were the kitchen and the parlour. Here domestic life mainly took place. Depending on the age a tiled stove or an open fireplace ensured cosy warmth and at the same time served for smoking sausages. This form of preservation is practised at Ballenberg up to this day, and and the smell of smoked meat is very appetizing indeed. The remaining rooms of most homes were unheated or only slightly warmed by the rising heat from below. The principle of the “open house” allows the visitors to get an idea of the lifestyle of those days. On entering the premises we almost fancy that we can feel the spirit of a bygone era.
Life skills were particularly necessary to ensure survival at a time that was often characterised by diseases and poverty. So we feel somewhat ashamed looking at the tools and implements created without machines or even computers by the people of those times in order to cope with the tasks of daily life. More than 45,000 items are exhibited at Ballenberg. The collection of various “special” tools is a particular “showpiece”. Several of them were owned by the vagrant Karl Rudolf, called Charly, who distinguished himself by his technical virtuosity and accordingly had a variety of different tools. Shortly before his death in 1997, he bequeathed some items belonging to his occupation to the Ballenberg Museum, which was a matter of the greatest importance to him.3

Not forgetting the traditional skills

In addition to viewing the many buildings and their interior design, visitors can also take a look at the craftsmanship of those past days. Among other things one can find a carpenter and even a drug store there, and one can admire exceptional rarities everywhere. In certain places people can take matters in their hands themselves and have a bout at processing a piece of wood or fabric. It makes sense, even in the digital age, not to forget the traditional skills, which depend primarily on the individual’s capacity of remembering to practice and pursue them. If for once and for whatever reason the power supply should fail or other energy sources become scarce, then all of these skills would be in great demand. You can learn specific details about food, drink, life, cooking, etc. directly from the staff of the Ballenberg Museum, since they explain everything to the visitors very accurately and in a fascinating way on the spot. Whether it is the smoking of meat or the drying of flax, the breeding of silkworms, the cheeses, the roofing of thatched roofs and much more, their knowledge is immense. One can also learn so much about the construction of the houses and their age, that would remain uncomprehended by individual visitors who had not resorted to the available knowledgeable explanations.
In agriculture animals are partly used instead of machines. Whether it is plowing or tedding with horses, Hermes Thöni who is employed in the agricultural team of the museum, expresses what it takes: “It requires well-trained animals and great patience. Then, one can tackle also more difficult tasks such as plowing for example ... The work is hard for the animals. Moreover, it is not really easy to get the furrows straight. The team must also harmonize well.”4 Hermes Thöni likes the traditional way of working very much. Apart from the fact that he is convinced of the value of horses in modern forestry for example, Thöni appreciates the old mechanics which is easier to understand than computerized high-tech solutions.
In most cases, livestock was not just an acquisition, but also an important part of self-sufficiency. The animals are on-site here, 250 in number, and may be viewed by visitors. The races are mainly of Swiss breed that is partly threatened with extinction. Therefore, there is a close collaboration with the organisation Pro Specie Rara. In summer the animals are on the Ballenberg, in winter they return to their owners.

Autonomy of communes allows citizen-friendly solutions

After a day of exciting and moving impressions one has seen only a fraction of what is available to the visitor at the Ballenberg. Only a small part of the cultural diversity of traditional Switzerland can be captured in one day. A diversity that is ultimately reflected in the political configuration of Switzerland. As Ruedi Lustenberger put it in his speech of 1 August, this includes above all federalism. This diversity could develop and be maintained because of the extensive political and cultural sovereignty of the cantons. The great autonomy of the municipalities allows citizen-friendly solutions, which in turn further the identification and satisfaction of the people.
“We have managed to build a system with our own values and to make our diverse, colorful Switzerland a story of success. In a small area we unite four national languages, great cultural diversity and maintain a unique high degree of autonomy of municipalities and regions. Our success is crucially rooted in our dealing with this large variety that also changes continuously over time. Since the first alliances of the old Confederates in 1291, Switzerland has constantly undergone a process of integration. This process has been coped with quite well so far.”5
If Switzerland abandons its peculiarities or loses them by lack of awareness as described above, it shall fall into mediocrity and will no longer be distinguished from other states, as predicted by Simon Geissbühler in his book “Die Schrumpfschweiz” (The Shrink-Switzerland)6. That would be the end of a unique political and cultural and ultimately democratic model. In the often invoked “era of globalization”, which means nothing else but the unrestricted freedom of global capital and trade, the economic and financial oligarchy – instead of the citizens in their countries – will determine, in what direction politics has to work. Everything will be subordinated to the economic and financial benefit of the global players. If at all, man emerges merely as an economic factor that is supposed to consume as much as possible.

Shared coping with pending tasks

Those who move on the Ballenberg with open minds will experience something else. Human life does not consist of maximizing profit and economic benefit. Primary aim has been to ensure food security and survival. Not big money had priority, but human interaction, the shared working on and coping with pending tasks. A visitor recounted that when he was young he “had” had to lend a hand with the harvesting of hay in summer while his classmates had gone swimming. That kept him busy at the time. In retrospect, however, he had to realize that the work together with siblings and adults, the shared mid-morning and afternoon meals as well as the harvest of the crop had filled him with pride and satisfaction already at that time, although he would not have admitted it then. That is why a visit on the Ballenberg brings back memories and inspires reflecting more deeply about the existence of today. Beatrice Tobler, who has worked at the Ballenberg Museum since 2012 and is Head of Science ad interim puts it this way: “The lifestyles and strategies of the people of earlier times may be of interest for us today and in future. I am thinking of handicraft and building techniques as well as of the use of resources in general. In this context there are popular keywords like sustainability, urban gardening, recycling and neighbourhood assistance.”7
Anyone who wants to experience a part of Swiss cultural history and feel more connected to the country and its peculiarities as well as to its residents, must visit the Open-Air Museum at Ballenberg.     •

1    Edwin Huwyler: Schweizerisches Freilichtmuseum für ländliche Kultur, Berne 2008, p. 38
2     Ruedi Lustenberger: Speech on 1 August 2015
3     Der Ballenberger 1/15 annual magazine. pp. 6
4    Ibid. p. 5
5    Ruedi Lustenberger: Speech on 1 August 2015
6    Simon Geissbühler: Die Schrumpfschweiz, 2014
7    Der Ballenberger 1/15 annual magazine. pp. 4.

A visit to the Ballenberg Museum with students is worthwhile. If you want to experience something special, there is a whole range of opportunities: So there are days dealing with special themes or advanced training courses for school classes and groups. The adventure days which are oriented on a theme allow visitors to immerse themselves in the life of that time and to acquire traditional skills. One can participate actively in bread baking, wood carving and even building houses.

More information is available at www.ballenberg.ch.

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