Glimpses of the opening festivities, plus models of the National Museum and the Helvetia float.

The National Museum's opening parade in 1898

Exactly 120 years ago today, in the afternoon of 25 June 1898, the three-day festivities marking the opening of Switzerland’s National Museum culminated in a lavish parade through downtown Zurich. The individual cantons presented themselves on the theme “Local Swiss costumes in portraits of traditional life”.

Founding a national museum was no simple matter in a federation like Switzerland. Already in 1799, a “Central Arts and Crafts Collection” was considered but the project was subsequently scuttled owing to opposition by the cantons, which maintained their own collections of local memorabilia and were reluctant to relinquish the upper hand over their history. It was not until 1890 that the National Museum was founded by law. This immediately unleashed a bitter dispute, however, with Bern and Zurich feuding over which city should host the institution; the issue even threatened to fracture Switzerland’s bicameral system, a situation hitherto unknown. It was only a year later that the choice fell on Zurich. Then it took longer than expected to transform the extravagant plans of the architect, Gustav Gull, and progress on Zurich’s biggest worksite was delayed repeatedly.

Yet pleasure and relief were on an equal scale when, in late afternoon on 24 June 1898, the special train carrying the Federal Councillors, a delegation from the diplomatic corps and members of Parliament pulled into Zurich’s main station. By evening large numbers of illustrious guests from all over Switzerland and other countries were still pouring into the city. In a celebration such as Zurich had rarely seen before, the inaugural weekend progressed with a presentation in the City Theatre and a torch procession by students from the University and Institute of Technology. The next morning, the National Museum was handed over to the Federal Government in a non-public ceremony and the celebration parade, featuring the exquisite officials’ float, crisscrossed the old town before finishing up at the Tonhalle.

On the morning of 25 June 1898, the full Federal Council led the official delegation, including members of both houses of Parliament and the diplomatic corps, from the National Museum to the Tonhalle.

The undisputed climax of the festivities came in the afternoon with a costumed parade that began at 3 p.m. The procession, featuring 2000 participants, 21 marching bands, 200 riders and 70 floats, threaded its way through the streets that teemed with spectators waiting with huge expectations.

Official delegation: the Helvetia float

Lucerne: a bucolic baptism in Surenthal

The founding cantons: Tell procession with the Urinauen

Basel: Fasnacht

Thurgau: Ermatinger Groppenfasnacht

Valais: Lötschental parade and hikers from Evolène

Vaud: Wine-growers’ festival in Vevey with Bacchus float

Bringing up the rear: Turica float

The National Museum celebrates its 120th birthday

The Swiss National Museum in Zurich was inaugurated on 25 June 1898. To mark this anniversary, we propose a week-long look back at episodes in the institution’s 120-year history.

Monday:
Opening parade
The three-day opening festivities culminated on the afternoon of 25 June 1898 with a lavish celebration parade through downtown Zurich.

Tuesday:
Tour of the Museum
On a tour of the recently opened National Museum around 1900, visitors were mainly impressed with the spectacularly fitted-out exhibition halls.

Wednesday:
Postcards
As a Zurich landmark the National Museum was a greatly appreciated opportunity to write postcards, which were sent by the millions.

Thursday:
Behind the scenes
A look inside the museum’s offices, workshops and collections in the 1970s.

Friday:
Expansion
An enlargement was already planned when the National Museum was opened in 1898. Only 118 years later was the project fulfilled.

Fabian Müller
Historian, works at the National museum's photo archive

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