Nature and culture, fear and courage, fantasy and catastrophe: "Apocalypse" - the new exhibition

7. November 2017


"Apocalypse - End Without End" (opening 10th November 2017) represents a departure for Bern's Natural History Museum in several respects, merging the natural sciences with cultural science and pointedly featuring a range of works of art. Moreover, the exhibition sees the Museum, which is funded by the Community of Burghers of Bern, make use of new space for the first time. "Apocalypse" takes the visitor on a rollercoaster ride of fear and fascination. While catastrophes destroy worlds, they also unearth incredible life forces. "Apocalypse" was created in collaboration with exhibition designer Martin Heller and his team at Heller Enterprises.

For Dunkleosteus, the fish whose fossilised skull now rests in a display case in the exhibition, the world ended long ago. These particular predators, which reached lengths of up to ten metres, disappeared from what were then the planet's seas 375 million years ago during one of the five major mass extinction events to have taken place on Earth. It's no secret that the Earth itself is still around, but countless worlds have disappeared over the course of its long history - from entire biological environments such as that of the dinosaurs - to human cultures. When will it be our turn? Since its very beginnings, mankind has been concerned with its end. The topic arises in the earliest surviving written texts, including the Epic of Gilgamesh, while the biblical vision of the Apocalypse has had a profound and far-reaching influence on Western culture. Today it is mainly Hollywood which feeds our imaginations with awe-inspiring portrayals of the end of the world. 

The apocalypse, more of a human invention than a scientific phenomenon, is by no means an obvious topic for an exhibition at a natural history museum. Yes, nature poses a threat to humankind - we remain at the mercy of storms and volcanoes, and natural disasters have always been a breeding ground for human fears. Despite this though, the entity that mankind should probably be most afraid of is mankind itself. The notion that humans are likely to be the cause of their own extinction is not new. It was reinforced with frightening clarity on 6th August 1945 at 8.15 am local time when the first atomic bomb was detonated over Hiroshima. And for an alarmingly large number of animal species on Earth, the mere appearance of Homo sapiens marked the beginning of the end. Are we currently in the midst of the sixth mass extinction event, this time caused by human influence? It is undisputed that species diversity is declining rapidly all over the world. This apocalypse is taking place on a daily basis, quietly and often unnoticed.

Onwards and upwards with a new strategy: nature and culture

"Apocalypse - End Without End", the new exhibition at the Natural History Museum Bern (planned duration five years), visits an ancient topic that is more relevant than ever. The exhibition compiles scientific, societal and artistic perspectives on the never-ending story of the end of the world. Images, objects and narratives from science, culture and art are set against each other in deliberate provocation. The resulting contrasts force visitors to confront their own beliefs and experiences, edging them onto a rollercoaster ride that lurches between human life and the universe, from confirmation to uncertainty. There is nothing moralizing about the exhibition though, and nor does it lead to blank despair. Like the show itself, the feelings inspired are contradictory: fear engenders courage, and catastrophes, however great, always unearth incredible life forces.

For the Natural History Museum Bern, the exhibition represents a departure of sorts. The institution's strategy for the future places greater emphasis on temporary exhibitions, something that has not been possible until now due to a lack of space. The Museum, which is funded by the Community of Burghers of Bern, is currently in the process of taking over two floors of the building (an extension to its original premises which opened in 1998) that were previously rented out to external tenants. "Apocalypse" covers an area of over 600 m2 on the third floor, and the second floor, which is the same size, is due to open in 2019.  At the same time, "Apocalypse – End without End" continues the Museum's recent approach of bringing nature and culture together.

"Apocalypse" was developed in collaboration with Heller Enterprises, Zurich, the company headed by the exhibition developer and one-time artistic director of expo.02, Martin Heller. After his involvement with the Swiss National Exhibition, Heller went on, among other things, to be artistic director in Linz's successful bid to become European City of Culture in 2009. This coming year he is teaming up with Holzer Kobler Architekturen, Zurich, an international architecture and design firm, to create a permanent exhibition about the city of Zurich at the Swiss National Museum. The striking and idiosyncratic scenography of "Apocalypse" is also by Holzer Kobler Architekturen.