Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Lang Nacht im Museum

Do you ever come across a perfectly good Saturday night and then feel indecisive about how to spend it? There's always dinner and a movie, dancing if you're feeling ambitious or game night at home if you're broke and nerdy, but even these start to feel routine after a while. I bet this is why bowling and laser tag were invented; there was a demand for something new to do on Saturday night and someone thought that knocking over pins with a heavy ball was it. Anyway, a couple Saturdays ago I was hungry for something new to do and Zurich's Lang Nacht im Museum satisfied my appetite.

The title of this annual event translates to 'Long Night in the Museum' and if you think that sounds like a field trip nightmare from hell, think again. On this one special night every year, all 39 museums in town remain open later, in some cases as late as five a.m., and unite for a single purpose: to get more folks interested in museums. Obviously, patrons cannot visit all 39 museums in one night, even if it is a lang nacht, so we meticulously read over the brochure before deciding on an itinerary. Each museum lured patrons with a unique program for the evening; some offered films while others featured presentations, but almost all of them set up bars serving snacks and drinks. The Kunsthaus, Zurich's largest contemporary art museum, literally rolled out the red carpet and hosted a big party with a deejay spinning electronic music. Memories of fourth grade field trips to the museum quickly vanish when you enter a gallery with a disco ball hanging from the ceiling.

We didn't linger in the Kunsthaus long, though because we figured that we could visit bigger museums any time and wanted to devote our evening to the venues with more limited regular hours. And in the case of our first stop, by 'limited' I mean only open twice per month and by 'venue' I mean a three-story underground Swiss bomb shelter/bunker/hospital. Because even today Swiss homes are required by law to have bomb shelters, I was surprised that this facility was considered enough of a relic of history to be turned into a "museum." However, once inside we learned that only part of the bunker was open to the public and the rest remains ready to be used in the event of an emergency. Whew! I knew the Swiss had a plan.

Anyway, in the 80s or 90s when part of the shelter was converted to a museum, the designers must have found it lacking a sense of life and action. They decided to remedy the problem by adding creepy, now very retro-looking mannequins to the various rooms. Our tour led us through a room where mannequins modeled how to cleanse oneself of radioactive particles in a communal shower and then put on matching Brave New World-esque uniforms.

I was thrilled to have the opportunity to peek inside a real Swiss civil bomb shelter, but as I look back on it now, the tour made me pretty uncomfortable. At no point did we enter a room without electricity, yet at the beginning of the tour we were given hot lanterns with a real flame to carry around in the enclosed space. I think the idea was to give us a sense of what the shelter would have been like in 1941 when it was built, but I'm not sure. The Lang Nacht im Museum involved a lot of guesswork because most of the information was presented in Swiss German and I had to listen really hard to understand about ten percent of what was said. Thankfully, our friends Thao and Martin were available to translate, but we didn't want to bother them all night. In any event, it was hard to hold the lantern without burning my fingers and as far as taking me back to the second world war, let's just say they did about as good a job as the mannequins.

And speaking of the mannequins... have you ever had to stand really close to one, I mean really close? Hanging out in a bomb shelter alone is enough to make anyone feel claustrophobic, but when you fill the small space with a large crowd and a couple of dusty mannequins, people start to get nervous.

So we've entered the hospital wing of the shelter and, of course, there is a mannequin about to draw blood from another that is strapped to a gurney. We're surrounded by cabinets full of antique medical tools and supplies that more closely resemble medieval instruments of torture than devices that save lives. And if this wasn't freaky enough, there is a small album of photos of the worst injuries I've ever seen lying rather unceremoniously on the table. I later asked Martin if our tour guide had warned us about this photo album, given us a little heads up that these weren't for the faint of heart, but he said he didn't. Anyway, a teenage girl starts flipping through the album as I gaze on. These are so ridiculously graphic that I know they aren't fake; deep lacerations revealing muscle and bone, third degree burns, organs spilling out of the abdomen, it was horrifying but fascinating too. I walked away from the table to check out the rest of the room and moments later I see the teenage girl lying on the floor. Her knees are bent funny and it looks like she's having a seizure. The tour guide goes on talking as if nothing had happened, but the girl's brother and mom attend to her. She regains consciousness and we learn that she fainted after looking at those pictures. The tour group that followed ours included a bunch of small kids and I hoped that the guide had removed the photo album or at least warned people about it.

We recovered from that little shock with some complimentary wine and snacks outside the bomb shelter (bet I'll never say that again) and made our way to the next museum. Because the Swiss always rise to the occasion when it comes to transportation on special event days, we were easily able to hop on a tram in the direction of Kulturama, the next stop on our itinerary. We chose this museum because they were hosting a special exhibition called Geburt or 'Birth' on the early development of human life. I have four pregnant friends right now so of course I couldn't miss it.

Before we wandered up to Geburt, which was on the second floor, we went downstairs to see the permanent collection. Like many smaller museums, churches and historical monuments I see in Europe, it was kind of half-assed, if you'll pardon the expression. Three hundred million years of life on Earth was awkwardly compressed into one room. There were fossils on one wall, primate ancestors on another, some cave paintings, a whale's heart and a dinosaur in the middle.

If Kulturama turns Swiss kids on to learning then it can't be a bad thing, but I'm still a museum snob. Maybe I've had the privilege of visiting only the best museums in the states, but I feel like we have some really good ones. Americans don't have as much history or culture as they do here in Europe, so our few museums are well funded and feature high quality exhibits. Europe, and especially Italy (Rome, I'm talking about you), are so packed with history and culture that people cannot even maintain them properly. Have you ever read an informational brochure about a Spanish church that had been translated into atrocious English? It feels so pathetic and lazy that a simple proofread by a native English speaker could have remedied the problem, but didn't. This gave me a great business idea: outsourcing maintenance of cultural/historical tourist attractions to India. I understand that a lot of these crumbling churches and castles have tight budgets, so why not get more bang for your buck by outsourcing the maintenance to India where the workers don't take a siesta?

Anyway, Geburt was interesting. Highlights included real fetuses in jars at the different stages of development and a pregnancy suit. It was fun to look at the models of a four month old fetus or a five month old fetus and think 'that's what my friend's baby looks like right now.' The pregnancy suit is more like a heavy vest with two boobs and a big tummy. Trying it on provided a great photo op, but there was no danger of actually looking pregnant unless you brought a muumuu to throw on top. A video depicting a live birth looped in one corner of the room, making me wonder if the Swiss feel that a museum just ain't a museum without graphic photography.

Still, we had a great evening and learned some new things. Most importantly, it was a more memorable Saturday night than most spent at home or in a bar or restaurant. Yeah, if I can report that I toured a Swiss bunker and tried on a pregnancy suit in response to 'how was your weekend?' then I figure I have a pretty nice life.