Nine written contributions and eight pictorial sections tell the story from the first Swiss Mustermesse (Sample Fair) in 1917 through to the present. In this interview, the editor and historian Patrick Kury talks about working on the book, the pictorial treasure troves from the exhibitions and a fateful fire that broke out in 1923.
PD Dr. Patrick Kury lectures in modern general and Swiss history at the universities of Lucerne and Berne. He is also actively pursuing various public history projects. Along with Dr. Thomas Buomberger and Dr. Roman Rossfeld, he was one of the curators of the recent exhibition “14/18 – Switzerland and the Great War”, which was first staged in the Museum of History in Basel and has since been on show in various other Swiss cities.
Mr Kury, in preparing the book, you and your co-editor, Esther Baur from the Basel State Archive, have examined the history of the Swiss Mustermesse meticulously right through to the present-day MCH Group.
What impressed you and what surprised you?
What impressed me most was quite clearly the development of the company as a whole: how an idea born out of need engendered an exhibition company which has set completely new standards in Switzerland in the course of a hundred years and has finally grown into a successful player in the international exhibition business. In so doing, the Mustermesse has kept on reinventing itself. Another impressive phenomenon spanning the entire hundred years is the interaction between the MCH Group, the city and the people of Basel. If they had not all toed the same line, there would never have been a Mustermesse, and the exhibitions staged by the MCH Group would not have their particular attraction and charm as exhibitions within the city.
What surprised me, on the other hand, was how long individual groups of exhibitors held out in preventing or at least in delaying the internationalisation of the Mustermesse.
How did the book project come about and how did working together turn out in practice?
The starting point came in 2010, when the company’s top management began thinking about safeguarding the historical heritage of the Swiss Mustermesse. The MCH Group and the State Archive agreed to a joint project to organise the inventory and to transfer the items up to the time of the merger with Messe Zürich in 2001 to the State Archive. Once all that work had been completed, Christoph Lanz from the MCH Group and Esther Baur from the State Archive propagated the idea of producing a publication to coincide with the hundredth anniversary. In the end, they contacted me to ask if I would be able to draw up an outline concept, which I was delighted to do.
We then further developed the outline concept a step at a time and later on we were also joined by Daniel Hagmann from the State Archive and the CMS publishing house. The MCH Group and the State Archive created ideal preconditions for a historical review. Working together with the MCH Group proved to be exemplary too, initially with Christoph Lanz and then with Matthias Lagger as well. The latter was strongly committed to the book personally and opened numerous doors for us. Our work with all the other individuals involved also took the form of a productive dialogue.
How were the various topics selected?
Our aim is for the book to appeal to a broad public. On the one hand, the volume offers an overview of the development in its entirety and also the most important present-day exhibitions and aspects. On the other hand, it highlights unusual and surprising individual episodes in the Mustermesse’s history in shorter contributions, such as its participation in former world expos. We were forced to make a choice here and deliberately abandoned any encyclopaedic ambitions. Having defined these specifications, we picked topics and looked for suitable authors. We considered it important for upcoming authors to be offered a platform, alongside experts of international and national renown.
One of the book’s highlights is that it contains numerous historic photographs going back as far as 1917, which bring the development home to the reader in an impressive way.
Yes, the MCH Group possesses a veritable treasure trove of images, totalling around quarter of a million photographs. We were aware of that number to begin with, but were subsequently astonished by the quality. Many of the photographs, most of which are now in safe keeping in the State Archive and some of which have been digitised, are the work of eminent photographers and form part of Switzerland’s visual memory. They illustrate, on the one hand, the development of the modern exhibition industry in Switzerland and, on the other hand, they document how Switzerland evolved as an industrial nation: from the interwar Helvetic exhibition of technical products through to the high-tech products and luxury articles of the present, and from the emergence of the consumer society at the time of the economic boom following the Second World War through to the present-day experience economy. In order to make the most out of the outstanding pictorial sources, we have tried to present stories in text and images alongside each other on an equal footing. That is one of the particular features of the book.
In the 1920s, quite a lot of the people living in Basel thought the managers of the trade fair company had been arsonists. What had happened?
Yes, that is typical episode of that kind. A fire broke out in the exhibition halls in September 1923. The volunteer fire-fighters from the Employees’ Association at the Mustermesse, who were joined a little later by the municipal fire brigade, were forced to restrict their efforts to saving Hall 5, which was not a timber structure. All the other provisional timber halls burned down completely in less than an hour. Fortunately, nobody was hurt.
No guilt or negligence could be proved on the part of the Mustermesse. Despite that, the rumour persisted that it had been arson. This was because the fire occurred at a point in time when the Mustermesse management was planning extensive new buildings, and even announced that it was going to rebuild the destroyed buildings on the very same day as the fire itself. The then director of the Mustermesse, Wilhelm Meile, recorded in his memoires later on that he repeatedly heard it said during Fasnacht (carnival) in 1924 that he, in fact, had been the arsonist after all. In the years that followed, the new buildings were then put up quickly. Fast completion was to become one of the hallmarks of the exhibition buildings.
It is virtually impossible to imagine Basel without the “Messe”. What is the significance of the Mustermesse for Basel – and also of the brands and companies to have arisen out of it?
The fundamental point is that Basel does indeed have a trade-fair tradition going back as far as the late Middle Ages, but that its importance before the foundation of the Mustermesse tends to be overestimated. It is clear that the decisive impetus came from the Swiss Mustermesse. The true significance of the exhibition company lies in the economic value it creates for the entire region and for marketing the city. For some sixty years or so now, around a million visitors every year have been attending the exhibitions in Basel and other locations, and thousands of exhibitors are dependent on services provided by tradespeople and service companies. In that way, the hotel and restaurant sector, as well as the trades and the tax office, all benefit directly from Messe Basel.
From the city’s point of view, it seems fair to say that the big international events of Baselworld and Art Basel, are almost certainly Basel’s most important ambassadors, along with the FC Basel football club, in making the city known throughout the world. Baselworld alone has more than 4000 journalists reporting from the show every year.
And for the Swiss economy?
It used to be the case in the past that the Mustermesse was the most important annual showcase for the products and services of industry and commerce, a sort of annual “Landi” exhibition. Since the late 1950s, the structure of the exhibition sector has become increasingly differentiated according to sectors and needs. What used to be a single platform has evolved into numerous forums. Today, the most important industry exhibitions, such as Swissbau and Baselworld are still, however, the pivotal points of their particular industries. Exhibitors and visitors alike use these events to make discoveries, to familiarise themselves with the latest developments, to indulge in networking and to transact business. In a somewhat different form, that naturally also applies to the service fairs or to Art Basel.
You write that the company sees itself not only as an economic player, but as a political one too, as a driving force of economic, social and cultural change.
The MCH Group has never been a company that can lead an isolated existence, dedicating itself to day-by-day business and maximising profits. As an organiser of exhibitions and other events, it is directly involved in shaping cultural life. Its exhibition buildings change the appearance and character of the Kleinbasel district massively, it is forced to face up to the political disputes arising out of this and adopts a clear position within them. It is thus at the same time both a factor and a product of the economic, social and cultural evolution of the city and region.
From your point of view, what were the three most important milestones in the history of the Mustermesse/MCH Group?
Apart from the founding phase, when the initiators launched a completely new form of fair in Switzerland, it was the transition from the unitary fair to the specialist fairs that I have already mentioned, the international opening-up and, finally, the maintenance of its position in the global exhibition market as the MCH Group – in the form of a limited company active in various locations in Switzerland and abroad. All of these milestones are more drawn-out processes rather than single events.
The book includes a separate chapter dedicated to the Mustermesse’s posters. What makes the posters so special?
For decades, there were particularly close ties between the arts and the advertising for exhibitions at the Swiss Mustermesse. This might be due to the fact that the first director of the Mustermesse, Jules de Praetere, was head of the College of Design at the same time. The Mustermesse’s posters met with extensive international recognition on account of their high artistic quality and became icons of style for Swiss poster creativity. At the same time, designers working on behalf of the Messe produced serial sources documenting Swiss products long before “Swissness” became a vogue expression.
There is one final question that interests us of course: what was your own first contact with the Mustermesse and what memories do you still have of it?
For us as a family, going to the Mustermesse was just as much part of the annual spring programme as was eating asparagus. I can no longer say with certainty, however, when it was that I first set foot in the Messe. It is, however, likely to have been in the late 1960s. What I remember are the stairs in the “Circular Courtyard Hall”, which were so inviting to play on and wore out my legs.
I also have vivid memories of the film afternoons which were arranged for children once a month or every two months in one of the banquet halls at the Mustermesse. Back in those days, before every home had a television, the film afternoons were cultural highlights for the kids. The sounds of shouting when the doors were opened and the rattling of the projector still ring in my ears today.