How one hundred Waldensian museums stay alive

Cécile Collet
Article in 24heures (06.2017)

Some twenty new museums have opened in fifteen years in the canton, few have closed. A vitality that is based on the passion of some, but also on the diversity of the canton.

Sandra Romy of the Musée de l’Absurde in Vevey, welcomes the works of the Bienne artist Laure Jolissaint, who makes her creations on scraps of rotary press paper in her new exhibition, Jeux avec les yeux.
Photo: Chantal Dervey

What is the connection between the typewriter, Sherlock Holmes, art brut and basketball? Each of these four statements has its own museum in the canton. And this is just the tip of an iceberg of unsuspected depth. In 2016, the Swiss Museums Association counted one hundred museums in the canton of Vaud, compared with eighty fifteen years ago. This raises questions about their model, their funding and their chances of survival.

“One hundred is enormous, but it’s fairly proportional to the population and the size of the canton,” says Nicole Minder, head of the Service des affaires culturelles (SERAC) of the canton of Vaud. The Swiss figures recently published by the Federal Statistical Office prove her right: the country has 1111 museums for its 8.2 million inhabitants (compared with 778,000 for the canton). According to the head of department, the diversity of the proposals also echoes that of our large territory.

The snag is that, although several museums open every year (and a few less close), the number of visitors does not increase. And although museums are the most visited cultural institutions in Switzerland (72%, including zoos), ahead of musical performances (71%) and monuments and sites (70%), and far ahead of the cinema (66%) and theatre (47%) (FSO 2015 figures), their attendance is necessarily “diluted” by these openings, without their costs being reduced.

Small but strong

The nine cantonal museums, which count their visitors in the tens of thousands, feel this dilution, as do some municipal museums. The new “big” proposals, such as Nest or Chaplin’s World, do not seem to suffer from this, as their attendance figures are so good. This may reassure the future Aquatis or the Lake Geneva Museum and its planned extension.

As for the “small” museums contacted, where visitors number in the hundreds, there is no real change. “In our case, it varies a lot, between 200 and 300 a year,” explains Pierre Deriaz, president of the Musée du Vieux-Baulmes for the past twenty years. At 5 francs a ticket, you can understand why the budget is tight and why the dues of the hundred or so members are vital. When asked about the voluntary work of the committee, which plays the role of tour guide, Pierre Deriaz burst out laughing: “That, in any case!”. Before changing his mind: “Our curator receives a small salary, which the rent of 700 francs for a dilapidated flat in the museum house enables us to pay him.

At the Sherlock Holmes Museum in Lucens, the committee also works on a voluntary basis, as do almost 40% of the museum staff in Switzerland (a total of 19,500 in 2014). “We pay the guides and the caretaker, thanks to the admissions (editor’s note: 962 in 2016) and the one-off events that we organise,” explains curator and vice-president Vincent Delay. Despite renewed interest in the Conan Doyle character, linked to recent games, films and series, which has boosted attendance for the past six years, the 2016 financial year ended with a deficit of 1,600 francs. “It is in fact a decrease in capital…” says Vincent Delay. Delay insists that in order to get by and not nibble away at its savings, the museum must create events, temporary exhibitions and attract sponsors.

Created in 1943 for the Vieux-Baulmes and in 1966 for the Sherlock, the two museums have had their ups and downs but have never closed down. The support of the Commune in both cases (punctual for the first, free premises for the other) but also the vitality of those who work to make the places exist explain this. In Baulmes, Pierre Deriaz is delighted to be able to hand over the baton to the next generation of young inhabitants of the village. And, in Lucens, Vincent Delay, also president of the Société holmésienne de Suisse romande, insists on the dynamism instilled by these organisations. As a nod to his study character, he reminds us that the Pipe Museum in Lausanne was not so lucky: “It closed down when its owner died…”.

Also in Lausanne, the Shoe Museum also relies on its founders, Marquita and Serge Volken. Established in Le Rôtillon, the shoemakers’ quarter, for fourteen years now, it opens every first weekend of the month in the afternoon “and 24 hours a day if you look from outside”, smiles Marquita Volken. The curators have decided not to charge an entrance fee. “With the entertainment tax, we would have had to hire a trustee for the management. With 1,000 visitors a year, we can’t afford it.”

The very small institution (12 m2 + 1.5 m2 showcase for temporary exhibitions), which presents rigorous copies of leather shoes from prehistoric times to the 19th century, has never obtained any support from the City, even though it has requested it twice. “The aim of archaeology is not to make money,” philosopher Marquita Volken said. Luckily our rent is low and we sometimes receive some surprising donations from visitors.” In Vevey, Sandra Romy also relies on donations from visitors, who are invited to pay a free “outing”. Thanks to this, the curator of the Museum of the Absurd (also 12 m2!), one of the newest of the small museums, is able to pay for the artists she exhibits.

Support from the authorities?

To launch her museum, first in Biel, Sandra Romy organised a crowdfunding campaign, the 9600 francs of which enabled her to pay a year’s rent. But her two requests to the City only resulted in a modest 300 francs for a vernissage… She expects her recent move to Vevey to be a nice improvement. “Better situated, better publicised, the museum should attract more than the 450 visitors to Biel,” the curator hopes. The Ville d’Images also supported the launch of the structure with a subsidy of 5,000 francs. The Canton has also put its hand in the purse and paid a start-up grant of 4,000 francs.

This support is not engraved in marble. As far as the Canton is concerned, they can be granted on a case-by-case basis. “Our various commissions can provide one-off support for cultural mediation activities or projects such as an artist’s catalogue,” explains Nicole Minder. But the law on movable and intangible heritage (LPMI) clearly focuses on the nine cantonal institutions”. The head of SERAC believes that not everything can be put into museums. All the more so as the 21st century offers new forms of heritage. We will have to make choices about what we want to preserve.”

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