Barry – an exhibition for a Swiss icon

11. June 2014
Barry – an exhibition for a Swiss icon
Barry, the most famous rescue dog in the world, died 200 years ago yet remains a legend to this day. The Naturhis-torisches Museum Bern is dedicating a new exhibition to its best known occupant. "Barry - the legendary St. Ber-nard" explores the heroic deeds of the St. Bernard from the Great St. Bernard Pass. But which stories are true and which myth? The new permanent exhibition opens on Fri-day June 13th 2014.
What kind of dog is known round the globe 200 years after its death? Only a very special dog, that's for sure.
Barry is the most famous rescue animal in the world. He is viewed as a symbol of Switzerland and highly regarded much further afield as a shining example of loyal help and service. The stuffed mount of the extraordinary St. Bernard has been housed at the Naturhistorisches Mu-seum in Bern since the museum's earliest days. To mark the 200th anniversary of Barry's death and do justice to the dog's significance, the museum is now dedicating a new perma-nent exhibition to its most famous occupant.   
The exhibition explores the legends which surround the rescue dog from the Great St. Ber-nard Pass, weaving together fact and fiction, past and present in a captivating way. The Barry myth contains all the ingredients of a timeless story: danger and rescue, heroism and tragedy, supernatural powers and earthly good sense. The exhibition asks which elements of the Barry tales could be true and which belong in the realm of fiction - while still leaving plenty of room for speculation and fantasy. The aim of the exhibition is neither to glorify this Swiss national hero, nor to take away any of his magic. Although it is highly unlikely that Barry carried out all the heroic deeds attributed to him, he was still involved in the rescue of 40 people and fa-mous even during his lifetime - another indication that he must have been a very special dog. 
Life-sized picture book
For visitors, walking through the exhibition is like walking through a giant picture book. The stage on which the Barry drama plays out is a fairytale-like Alpine world with a dark side, and museum-goers are given various opportunities to peek behind the scenes. Fascinating glimpses are provided into the harshness of life in Barry's day on the Great St. Bernard Pass, where at 2469 metres above sea level the Canons of St. Augustine and the marroniers who assisted them (a group thought to be descended from converted Moors) provided hospitality to travellers and rescued people who had got lost or trapped in the snow. A 200 year old visi-tors' book from the hospice run by the canons makes strikingly clear how arduous the cross-ing of the Alpine pass must have been. 
Why Barry's story is still relevant today
A surprising number of facets of the Barry myth retain their relevance to this day. Although the world has changed beyond recognition in many ways, the mountains remain both en-thralling and deadly. The exhibition lays out for the visitor the fine line which mountain-users tread, making clear both the inexorable pull which a slope of virgin snow can exert on an off-piste skier or snowboarder, and the dangers to which people expose themselves when they venture into the mountains. One nightmarish audio exhibit sees an avalanche survivor de-scribe what it's like to look the "white death" straight in the eye. Video clips provide fasci-nating glimpses into modern mountain rescue techniques and the work of today's rescue dogs.  
Largest collection of canine skulls in the world
Barry's story is also a story of dog breeding. The original Barry would not have looked like the St. Bernards we know today. The rescue dogs on the Great St. Bernard Pass were mongrels - appearance was not something on which the canons placed value. The St. Bernard breed as we know it only developed after Barry's death. In fact, the stuffed mount of his body was ac-tually modified around a hundred years ago because it no longer conformed to the public's expectation of the breed. Marc Nussbaumer from the Museum is a dog breeding expert and authority on Barry whose book "Barry vom Grossen St. Bernhard" (Barry of the Great St. Ber-nard Pass) explores the story of the rescue dog in minute detail. Nussbaumer is in charge of the museum's collection of canine skulls, which is the largest in the world.  
Today's St. Bernards are now too bulky to be used as rescue dogs. At the press conference held in the run up to the exhibition Rudolf Thomann, head of the Martigny-based Fondation Barry, the organisation responsible for breeding the St. Bernards from the Great St. Bernard Pass, explained something of the history of the breed. "Towards the end of the 19th century, when pedigree breeding began in earnest, appearances suddenly became the only thing that mattered. The English in particular developed a liking for enormous dogs and were prepared to pay extremely high prices for them." The Fondation Barry is now attempting to turn back the clock in order to improve the health and fitness for work of the breed.  
Tourist magnet
The press conference also saw Markus Lergier, director of Bern Tourismus, praise the muse-um's latest initiative. "Barry is a part of Bern and one of the city's main tourist attractions. I'm delighted that he will now have his own exhibition, one that does justice to the fame of this unique dog." Foreign visitors have been seeking out the museum for decades to see Barry, which is one of the reasons that the Naturhistorisches Museum is providing - among other things - an e-guide in five different languages. 
For further information and press photos, see: