Fondation des Clefs de St-Pierre

Guillaume Fatio

chairman of the Clefs de St¬Pierre Foundation

Fondation des Clefs de St-Pierre

24, place du Bourg-de-Four 1204 Geneva Switzerland

European Union Prize for Cultural Heritage / Europa Nostra Award

Archaeological site of St Peter's Cathedral, Geneva
The new exhibition space: an ambitious undertaking

Between the beginning of the excavations under the Cathedral in 1976 and the inauguration of the second and final extension of the archaeological site of Saint-Pierre Cathedral, thirty years have passed. Thirty years: in other words, a whole generation, during which our world has changed profoundly.

On the level of archaeological and historical knowledge, the exploration of the area below and around the cathedral, under the direction of Charles Bonnet, as well as the many digs carried out elsewhere in the canton of Geneva, have contributed hundreds of new pages on the history of Geneva and the lives of its inhabitants from earliest antiquity. And the new discoveries are far from over: even though the excavation of the cathedral is now finished, researchers still have much to learn from the mass of data they collected over the years.

Secondly, the culture, expectations and understanding of the public have also changed. While previous generations enjoyed a solid education in the classics and relied on the written word for new information, access to knowledge has now been democratised, sometimes to the detriment of the kind of historical, cultural and religious knowledge that used to be taken for granted. At the same time, the audiovisual media have come to play a growing role in informing the public, in particular the younger generation. 

photo copy; Alain Germond

These changes have not dimmed public interest in history and museums, on the contrary. As a result, the places where knowledge is communicated have been forced to modernise in order to meet the expectations of a new kind of visitor, who is often more demanding and less patient than his or her predecessors. 

Based on this realisation, the directors of the Clefs de Saint-Pierre Foundation decided to take advantage of the conversion of the portion of the archaeological site not yet open to the public to rethink the presentation of the entire site, with the aim of making it more attractive and accessible to contemporary visitors. It is up to them to tell us whether the objective has been met.

As the archaeological site turns a new page and begins a new period, the Clefs de Saint-Pierre Foundation would like to thank all those who since 1976 have contributed to the achievements inaugurated in 2006: the archaeologists, architects, museum designers and other essential contractors, some of whom have been working on the project for the last 30 years; the companies and specialists whose careful work ensured the high quality of the site's fittings; the cantonal, communal and federal authorities who underwrote the restoration of the cathedral and the creation of the underground museum, as well as the generous private donators who allowed the new exhibition concept to see the light of day; and finally, the many individuals who contributed their time, knowledge and resources to bringing the wonders of the archaeological site of Saint-Pierre Cathedral to a new generation of visitors.

Guillaume Fatio
Chairman of the Clefs de St-Pierre Foundation

Staging an archaeological site

The role of the museum designer

What is role of a museum designer hired to design a project like the archaeological site of Saint-Pierre Cathedral?
The "staging" of a space involves a number of challenges and hazards, and requires true passion, a quality the museum designer shares with the archaeologist. Our role begins with the definition, in collaboration with the archaeologist, of a strategy for "knowledge communication" based on practices and approaches that are specific to both disciplines.

Documenting, analysing, inventorying

Our first step as designers was to outline a scenario defining the themes and methods we might use in order to capture the attention of visitors and help them better understand the importance and value of the vestiges on display. Our objective was to breath new life into the remains, no matter how fragmentary, naked and silent, to enable them to tell a story - the story of the men and women who shaped and built them, many centuries ago.
In addition, to enhance the value and promote the interpretation of an archaeological site that is as exceptional as it is complex, we had to create conditions that would be acceptable to visitors: these included: a comfortable, warm atmosphere, a message that flowed well, methods of communication that would be accessible to a majority of visitors and suitable signage.

Imagining for an audience

In order to interpret a site while respecting the spirit of the place, Museum designers can draw on a wide range of tools: they suggest a type of presentation, create auditory and visual atmospheres, and design lighting, didactic displays, showcases and audiovisual presentations.
In the case of the archaeological site of Saint-Pierre Cathedral, certain constraints appeared very early on. In order to meet our objectives - to astonish and seduce visitors, to encourage them to see, understand, and dream - we decided to facilitate the transfer of scientific knowledge by soliciting input from the people who worked on the site. So we asked archaeologists, historians, architects, engineers as well as specialists from a number of disciplines to share their understanding of the site with us.
In May 2005, a thematic mock-up and the installation of the first elements of the new museum design allowed us to test the relevance of the scenario we had come up with. This marked the start of a long series of works, thanks to which the Clefs de Saint-Pierre Foundation and the Cantonal Archaeological Department is now able to welcome the public in a much larger space comprising an entire new section of excavations. This was an opportunity to rethink and modernise other areas of the archaeological site.

Conceiving, building, staging

In the next step, we updated the information provided to visitors to reflect new discoveries made by archaeologists in recent years. Then we defined around twenty attractive themes to be addressed in the redesigned visit. Summarising 30 years of archaeological research (1976-2006) was a difficult, almost impossible exercise. But

photo copy; Alain Germond

The buildings which once stood on this site, and the activities which took place there, are evoked in wall panels, artist's renderings and backlit tablets.
Perspectives, large and medium-sized models, as well as aerial photographs allow visitors to situate themselves throughout the path of the visit.
Recent technological advances offered us attractive new options: 3-D simulations and films were used to explain the conclusions of archaeologists' research in a way that is easily understood by a audience of non-specialists.
In order to educate the public about new dimensions of the archaeologist's mission in terms of communication, research and methodology, we opted for documentaries made specifically for the site, which are projected on flat screens and interactive kiosks.
The fact that Geneva is a cosmopolitan city and that many of the visitors to the archaeological site are tourists from abroad justified translating the new audio tour in six languages.
Finally, the lighting design helped create an intimate atmosphere suitable for the religious and sacred nature of the site.
One of our main concerns was to uphold the reputation of a museum which had been in operation for twenty years, so that it would remain a model of excellence for similar projects elsewhere in the world. We hope this new museum design will contribute to a better reading and understanding of the site and allow everyone to appreciate this unique and rich heritage.
The new design could not have been realised without the many synergies between the museum and design teams. Several specialists contributed their knowhow to the project, and we thank them sincerely for their help.


Michel Etter and Johanne Blanchet Dufour
Museum designers THEMATIS SA

An Archaeology for Geneva

What visitors discover when they enter the archaeological site of Saint-Pierre Cathedral is an extraordinary space containing the remains of some of Geneva's oldest monuments. This required the systematic excavation of a large area within and around the cathedral, under the surrounding streets and squares. The government and the public understood the interest of this approach, in which excavations were carried out in parallel with the restoration of medieval buildings.
The earliest remains we have uncovered, dating from the second or first century BC, consist of a square, a temple, an aristocratic house and a potter's workshop. Above this, at the highest point of the hill, was a citadel surrounded by a palisade and moats; this area probably contained another religious building and was used as a refuge when needed. The port that developed at the end of the lake, as well as the bridge over the Rhone, provide further evidence of the development of the town as both a place of passage and a place of exchange.

photo copy; Alain Germond

The path of the visit through the underground site stops by an ancient tomb dating from around 100 BC. We believe it contains the remains of an influential personage, probably an Allobrogian chieftain. This individual was still remembered around to 60 or 80 years later, when an earth and wood mausoleum was built over his grave. In rituals carried out during this period, an oval hole was dug in the beaten earth floor in order to reach the head. Next to it, partially burned branches attest to a funeral cult. This cult continued in the following decades with the construction of a large building in which one painted room marked the location of the tomb. A tile and brick pedestal probably served to support an altar or a statue. A fenced terrace built of sand and gravel may have served to preserve the memory of the heroicised former chief.
The temple at the centre of this area could not be entirely excavated because it is located under the baptistery. Nevertheless, we are certain there was such a building, made of wood and mud, from the earliest time of human occupation on this part of the hill. It underwent the same transformations as the buildings associated with the tomb we think belonged to an Allobrogian chief, and it was not until the first century AD that it was rebuilt in stone. A capital and a column found deep under the Maison Mallet (where the International Museum of the Reformation is now located) may be connected to this early Roman temple. From its origins, this religious structure defined an urban centre where the placement of all new buildings was determined by the position of the sanctuary.
During the "Roman Peace" that followed the conquest of Gaul by Julius Cesar, Genava became a renowned vicus. It is often assumed that the following "dark centuries" put an end to the wealth of the region. In fact, when visiting the archaeological site, one quickly realises that Christianisation allowed the city to flourish. Its religious buildings were grandiose, as were the reception halls and their various annexes.
In recent weeks, we have discovered an exceptional oratory, which helps explain how the governing elite passed from paganism to the new religion. On the north side of the site are significant remains of a residence built on a natural terrace overlooking the port. We know that the owner of the vast residence was a Christian because the first cathedral of Geneva built around 375-380 took over part of his house.
The tomb of this man, or a member of his family who died long before work began on the cathedral, was set up in the choir of the oratory. This building comprised a nave with a barrier destined to mark off an area for ecclesiastics. A second, large tomb was added against the chevet. This valuable oratory was retained during the building of the first cathedral, whose floor covered the remains of earlier buildings. We believe that these vestiges, dating from around 350 BC, are some of the oldest witnesses to the Christianisation of Northern Europe.


Charles Bonnet
Member of the Institute
Former Cantonal Archaeologist
Scientific counsellor for the extension of the excavations

The archaeological site in numbers

• Start of excavations =1976
• Most recent excavation campaign = 1996-2006
• Discovery of the Allobrogian tomb = 2000
• Surface of the most recent excavation = 1060 m2
• Total surface of the site = 3300 m2
• Volume approx. = 13000 m3
• Length of the visit approx. = 400 m
• Duration of the visit = 45 min to 1h15
• Audiovisuals = 2 documentary films 2 similation of films in 3D Audio tour
• Didactic displays = 6 models, 12 wall panels and 18 backlit tablets
• New audio tour = 6 languages (French, German, English, Italian, Spanish, Japanese) and 18 information points
• Number of visitors per year (Statistics 2007) = 20000 visitors
• Espace SaintPierre = 3 sites in one : SaintPierre Cathedral and towers Archaeological Site of SaintPierre Cathedral International Museum of the Reformation
• Cost of the new museum design and fittings = 3.4 million Swiss francs

Guillaume Fatio
chairman of the Clefs de StPierre Foundation


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