Scrap or cultural asset? In a world that grows more complex every day, a museum with its special communication forms can be a valuable aid to personal orientation.
Artefacts are placed in a specific exhibition concept through which they become «understandable». A museum’s collection is thus both a unique source and reference point for this understanding. However, the meaningfulness of historical artefacts and documents is not intrinsic but much more the result of professional conservation measures, continuous scientific reappraisal and – not least – the ability to present them in an educational way.
Scrap or cultural asset?
Mass cultural goods are by definition not unique specimens or artefacts in the archaeological meaning of the word. In the traditional understanding of cultural history for example, a car from the pioneering days is not a cultural asset. However, a glance back to the 19th and 20th centuries shows that probably nothing has changed our lives as much as the key technologies associated with mobility. This means that historic motor vehicles are obviously also contemporary witnesses of the greatest value in cultural history terms.
The Swiss Museum of Transport continues to play an important role in this paradigm change in Swiss cultural history. In 1958, for example, Swiss Museum of Transport founder Alfred Waldis not only saved the wreck of the steamship «Rigi» by placing the ship in the courtyard of the original Museum of Transport that opened shortly afterwards. The crucial aspect was that by saving this side paddle steamer – probably the oldest surviving example of its kind – he established a memorial to technological history by making the «SS Rigi» the centrepiece of the entire site.
From today’s perspective, the use of the steamship as a garden restaurant may have brought its historical authenticity into question, but it was totally consistent with the contemporary understanding of the artefacts as visitor-accessible articles of everyday use in the exhibition.
It was only gradually that technical artefacts began to be seen as historical sources.
The technical artefact was also perceived and valued in its historical dimension. Today, the original substance and the changes brought about by use are the most important criteria relating to historical meaningfulness. Without a knowledge of the artefacts’ backgrounds (plans, owners, use etc.) it is impossible to say very much about their historical significance.
Today the conservation work focuses on maintaining the artefacts in their condition in which they were received as well undoing reversible changes that detract from the meaning or educative value. The many different types of restoration projects in the Swiss Museum of Transport are exemplified in the early cog railway locomotive «Gnom» from 1871, the «Motosacoche Jubilé» motorcycle from 1931 and the «Adler» car from 1913.
The latest major projects involve returning Switzerland’s oldest motorised means of transport, the steam ship SS Rigi to its original 19th century condition and at the same time restoring the largest passenger-carrying submarine, the Mesoscaph, and making it accessible to visitors once again.