History of the collections

The Musée d’ethnographie de Genève was founded in 1901. But its collections have a longer history, some beginning as many as two centuries earlier. The objects in this museum tell us not only about peoples, but also about our own history and our taste for the objects of the Other.

1702 – The Public Library’s Cabinet of Curiosities

The library of the Collège (now called the Collège Calvin) became public in 1702. Its purpose was to educate Geneva's intellectual elite and was visited by many travellers. The "marvels" of nature and art offered to the Library were collected together in a cabinet of curiosities. These objects were the first to enter Geneva’s public collections. The surviving pieces have been distributed between the appropriate contemporary museums.

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Vue intérieure de la Bibliothèque publique
The interior of the Public Library before the move to new premises in the Promenade des Bastions, in 1872. The last traces of the old cabinet of curiosities are still to be seen: a Turkish rug, a scientific instrument, and above all paintings and busts, because the Library had kept its portrait gallery. Watercolour and gouache by Jean-Jacques Dériaz (1814- 1890)
Bibliothèque de Genève (Tabl. 202)

1818 – The Academic Museum

Housed in a handsome residence in the Grand-Rue that is now occupied by the Société de Lecture, this museum was founded by Geneva’s leading scientists, who were teaching at the Academy (or University, as we would now say). It inherited objects from the library’s cabinet of curiosities related to its interests: the natural sciences, archaeology, local history, “statistics (or the study) of uncivilised peoples.” From 1863, the Academic Museum was directed by Hippolite Jean Gosse. Among his many other activities, Gosse reorganised the collections and built up interest in what was beginning to be called “ethnography”.

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Photographie ancienne du 11 Grand-Rue
An old photograph of 11 Grand-Rue which formerly housed the Academy Museum. The building was later occupied by the Fol Museum and then the Reading Society. Walther Fol’s collections, donated to the City of Geneva in 1872, had very little to do with the MEG.
Centre d'iconographie genevoise (VG P 2636)

1870 –The Geneva Historical Museum, also called the Armour Room

Created to house the collection of old armour donated by the State to the city of Geneva, this museum was installed in the former Arsenal, the present-day Geneva State Archives. Hippolite Jean Gosse was appointed curator. After building an extension, the museum broadened its scope and regularly bought exotic armour and weapons. 132 pieces from this collection were sent to the MEG in 1901.

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La Salle des armures
Armour Room at the time of the Swiss National Exhibition in 1896. On the right, a group of four Japanese suits of armour now in the MEG. Photo J. Lacroix published in the Journal Officiel illustré de l'Exposition Nationale Suisse, Geneva 1896
Bibliothèque du MEG

1872 – The Archaeology Museum

When the new university was built at the Promenade des Bastions, the Academy Museum was split into two new institutions: the Natural History Museum in the Jura wing and the Archaeology Museum in the basement of the new Public Library. Hippolite Jean Gosse stayed on as curator of the Archaeology Museum. The MEG was a direct offshoot of this museum in 1901.

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Vue de l'Université de Genève
View of the University of Geneva from the Promenade des Bastions. The Archaeology Museum was installed in the wing on the left in 1872. Photo John Jullien
Centre d'iconographie genevoise (cp 29 1953/190)

1876 – The Mission Museum

Founded in 1821, the Geneva Evangelical Missionary Society mainly financed the missions organised by its counterparts in Basel and Paris. In 1876, it set up a museum in the now demolished “Reformation Hall” facing the English garden. The museum held the objects sent by missionaries working throughout the world. Through the good offices of Eugène Pittard, the museum’s collections were given to the City, in 1901, when the MEG was created.

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La Salle de la Réformation
The Reformation Hall is the low building to the left of the grand hotel. The Mission Museum occupied only a small room upstairs; the ground floor was used for meetings of the Evangelical Missionary Society. Chromolithograph by Jules Linder, after 1889
MEG (ETHIC 300147)

1884 – The Ariana Museum

Created by a Genevan art collector, Gustave Revilliod, the Ariana Museum is a mansion dedicated to the decorative arts, with the accent on the exotic taste of its time. The museum and its collections were bequeathed to the City of Geneva in 1890. The collection was reorganised in the late 1930s and many objects were transferred to the MEG.

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La Salle japonaise
The Japanese Room in the Ariana Museum circa 1900
Centre d'iconographie genevoise (VGN 13x18 8538)

1885 – The Museum of Decorative Arts

Although the decision to create a decorative arts museum was taken in 1876, it did not open until nearly ten years later in the Watchmaking School. New design ideas inspired by exotic motifs and techniques attracted objects which were later transferred to the MEG.

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L'Ecole d'horlogerie à la rue Necker
The Watchmaking School in rue Necker, where the Museum of Decorative Arts was installed in 1885, in two large rooms on the first floor.
Centre d'iconographie genevoise (cp 29 ehorl)

1901 – The Musée d’ethnographie at Mon-Repos

The MEG, initially known as the Musée d’ethnographie, began to take shape when all Geneva’s public collections were reorganised. The ethnographic collections were separated from the archaeological collections, enriched by gifts from private collectors and from the Mission Museum and installed in the Villa Plantamour, in Mon Repos park. At first the villa was used as an annex for the municipal museums and the ethnography section had to share the premises with paintings. In 1910, the entire space was allocated to ethnography, and Eugène Pittard was appointed curator and director. He had strong scientific and educational ambitions for the institution and gave to the young museum an international dimension, notably through its relations with the nearby League of Nations.

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Le Musée de Mon Repos
The museum in Mon Repos circa 1905
MEG (photo 33513)
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Entrée du Musée de Mon Repos
Entrance to the museum in Mon Repos in 1930, showing the Japanese cabinet ETHAS 021380. Photo Molly
MEG (photo 37317)

1941 – The Ethnography Museum in the Boulevard Carl-Vogt

Under Eugène Pittard’s dynamic leadership the collections grew rapidly. The organisation of temporary exhibitions made the lack of space even more obvious. Pittard finally succeeded in moving the institution into a building which was at least larger, if not more suitable, as it had been an old school. Nevertheless, Pittard managed to implement a museographic approach there which he constantly tried to make more educational. In 1952, the long reign of this legendary director, then aged 85, came to an end and his former assistant, Marguerite Löbsiger-Dellenbach, was appointed to succeed him.

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Vitrine de la salle précolombienne
Vitrine in the pre-Columbian Room opened in 1945 in the Ethnography Museum recently installed in the boulevard Carl-Vogt
MEG (photo 5518)
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Eugène Pittard directeur du Musée d'ethnographie
Eugène Pittard, then director of the Ethnography Museum, and his assistant, Marguerite Lobsiger-Dellenbach, examining pre-Columbian objects, circa 1945
MEG (photo 41455)

1976 – The Conches Annex

Bought by the City of Geneva in 1972 and opened four years later as an annex to the Musée d’ethnographie, the villa in the Chemin Calandrini in Conches, on the outskirts of Geneva, served for thirty-seven years as a venue for temporary exhibitions, mainly on European themes, drawing on the Georges Amoudruz collection. The MEG Conches closed its doors in 2013.

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L'annexe de Conches
The Conches annex
MEG (photo 30870)

2014 – A New Building for the MEG

After dreaming of building a bigger museum on another site, Geneva finally decided to give its three-century-old collections a modern building in the Boulevard Carl-Vogt. The heritage value of these collections was evident. Bearing witness to living traditions or societies from the past, the objects have become the archives of human diversity, which is itself part of the stream of history.

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Le nouveau musée d'ethnographie
The new Ethnography Museum
MEG