Natural History Museum of Neuchâtel

Christophe Dufour


The Natural History Museum of Neuchâtel

Rue des Terreaux 14, 2000 Neuchâtel

(Neuchacirc;tel, Switzerland)
2009 Diderot Prize for Cultural Initiative

Display of trust and total creative freedom

Founded in 1835, under the impulse of the famous paleontologist and geologist Louis Agassiz (1807-1873) - the first promoter of the ice age theory in Europe, who later became the most prominent figure in the field of natural history in 19th-century America - the Museum of Neuchacirc;tel focuses on three missions. It aims to be an active player in the promotion of a true scientific culture through its exhibitions; a research center, in connection with the Swiss Biological Records Center, a foundation born within the Museum; and a place of conservation of vast scientific collections, which spread over 1000 m2 of well equipped depots and the oldest of which date back 250 years. Located in the heart of the small city of Neuchacirc;tel, the Natural History Museum has gone through a remarkable development these past twenty years. The annual attendance, under 10,000 visitors in 1985, raised to nearly 100,000 in 2007, a noteworthy rate considering the scale of the town and of Switzerland.

Noticing that its permanent exhibitions, mainly dioramas - though recognized as some of the best in Europe - did little to attract visitors on a regular basis, the Natural History Museum of Neuchacirc;tel elaborated a policy promoting the setting up within the institution itself of major temporary exhibitions. The themes are chosen so as to confront nature and culture by focusing on the relationship between man and his environment. Put on for more or less a year, the Museum's temporary exhibitions ambitiously stage these rarely explored themes. Their innovative museography seeks to mix genres, with scientific knowledge and artistic creation combining to great effect. Particular care is afforded to the general public as a whole, so that the exhibitions speak to both children and adults without compromising the quality of their museography. The elaboration of various levels of reading, the diversity of approaches and the multiplicity of themes allow each and everyone to find both enjoyment and information at his or her level. Traces of the temporary exhibitions are kept by the publications that accompany almost all of them.

Today visitors come from far away to discover the Museum's exhibitions: more than half of its visitors stem from other Swiss cantons or other countries. The Natural History Museum of Neuchacirc;tel has indeed now gained recognition as a center of creation. Several of its exhibitions have successfully been taken up in other cities: Les fantocirc;mes de l'ambre in Strasbourg and Krakow, Tombeacute; du cielhellip; meacute;teacute;orites et catastrophes in Grenoble and Nancy, L'air in Lausanne and Geneva, Rats in Strasbourg and Rennes, Sable in Lyon and Quebec, Petits coqs-a-l'acirc;ne in Budapest, Bucharest, Geneva and Orleans, Mouches in Paris, Luxemburg, Basel and Nantes. This last exhibition received the Expo 2004 prize from the Swiss academy of Natural sciences.

The effects of the Museum's ambitious policy valuing originality and renewal can also been seen in other of its endeavours. Since 1999, museum activities have been greatly improved with the creation of L'Atelier des museacute;es ("the Museum workshop"), a structure in charge of developing fun and educational activities for both school groups and families. A specially equipped room for workshops and museum activities was opened in 2010. The Museum's permanent exhibitions have recently been renovated and expanded. A semi-permanent installation was added to the mammal room in 2009, an entomology room was inaugurated in 2010 and a geology room is in preparation. These new installations all favour an engaging, interactive museography so as to awaken scientific interest.

These recent developments of the Museum's activities and creations, as well as their success, have resulted in the city of Neuchacirc;tel's generous recognition - the Museum is a public institution which belongs to and financially depends on the city. Significant credits were successively voted to renew the spatial planning of the inside of the Museum, remodel the reception area, create a cafeteria under a glass encasing which transformed a peristyle into a bright inside space, and renovate the faccedil;ades. The city authorities' financial commitment is coupled with a remarkable display of trust, resulting in the Museum team's total creative freedom.

The exhibitions, as well as the continual development and improvement of the Natural History Museum of Neuchacirc;tel have also gradually drawn international attention. In June 2009, the Museum was awarded a "tropheacute;e Didierot de l'initiative culturelle" by the AMCSTI (Association des museacute;es et centres pour le deacute;veloppement de la culture scientifique, technique et industrielle) and was thus singled out as an institution promoting scientific culture through the originality of its questioning and work.


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