MIH. 50 Years of a Monumental Showcase

The celebrations marking 50 years since the Musée International d’Horlogerie moved to its current site are in full swing. The exhibition titled “MIH. 50 Years of a Monumental Showcase” retraces the historical part of the event, complemented by publications dedicated to the anniversary. A second exhibition presents the new acquisitions.

"MIH. 50 Years of a Monumental Showcase"
Fifty years ago, the Musée International d’Horlogerie (MIH) inaugurated a distinctive showcase for its exceptional collection: constructed primarily underground using concrete and complemented by avant-garde scenography. Devoid of any artificial embellishments, the project blends seamlessly into its lush park surroundings, immersing visitors into the realm of time measurement. Initiated in 1972, the undertaking persevered despite the economic downturn that adversely affected the watch industry and the city of La Chaux-de-Fonds. The project reached its culmination and on 19 October 1974, the present-day museum welcomed the public. In commemoration of this milestone, the “50 Years of a Monumental Showcase” exhibition looks back on an era where watchmaking, museology and architecture converged. “50 Years of a Monumental Showcase” exhibition looks back on. The exhibition is organised in five sections:

Vibrancy: at the end of the 1960s, the watch industry went through a series of changes. Mass production, the appearance of new technologies, free trade and the fluctuations in the global economy shook up pre-established markets and modes of production. These changes brought about a re-evaluation of all conventions. During this pivotal period, watch Manufactures started to innovate, creating and imagining the watches of the future. The prevailing vibrancy at this time led to a series of innovations, with varying degrees of success. Some new additions, such as quartz, plastics, and even digital, built the aesthetic and technological foundations of current watchmaking.

The monumental showcase: MIH was built between 1972 and 1974 under the supervision of La Chaux-de-Fonds-based architect Georges-J. Haefeli (1934-2010) and Pierre Zoelly (1923-2003), from Zurich. It was jointly financed by the City, the Canton, the State and the watch industry, under the aegis of the Fondation Maurice Favre, which was specially created in 1967 with the aim of providing La Chaux-de-Fonds with a new watchmaking museum designed to reflect the importance of its collections. The architects’ conceptualization of the monumental showcase demonstrated an intelligent response to the programme’s requirements, successfully reconciling contrasting concepts and addressing scale-related challenges. Collaborations with specialists in building physics, notably civil engineer Pierre Beurret (1922-2016), and the construction firm Paci were integral to the project’s success. Upon its inauguration, MIH received unanimous praise from the media and was honoured with the inaugural Swiss concrete architecture award, the Prix Béton, in 1977. Additionally, it was awarded the Prix Cembureau and was voted European Museum of the Year in 1978. An immersive projection with archive and current images recounts the epic story of the museum’s construction, offering a new interpretation of this Brutalist-inspired monument. Testimonies from renowned architects, including famous New York-based Swiss architect Bernard Tschumi, creator of the Acropolis Museum in Athens, highlight the building’s construction features and reveal previously unpublished anecdotes from its inauguration 50 years ago.

A complete work: the interior layout of the museum was entrusted to a group consisting of Team BTG, Pierre Bataillard, Serge Tcherdyne and Mario Gallopini. Their role encompassed the creation and fitting of all technical aspects, notably including the design of the exhibition elements such as the display cases, but also the choice of furnishings to help enhance both the atmosphere and the comfort of visitors. Particular attention was paid to the transparency and the lightness of the exhibition supports, contrasting with the monolithic structure of the building whilst using it as a foundation. In this space, the MIH’s furniture becomes an exhibition artefact in its own right. It is presented in the same way as the works of art that make up the collection.

Imagination: in 1968, the Fondation Maurice Favre organised an open competition for architects living or working in the canton of Neuchâtel. Alongside them, ten Swiss architects were invited to apply. The jury, composed of Swiss architects, politicians, industrialists and those involved in local culture, was given 28 projects to consider. Nine proposals were selected for their superior qualities. “Gnomon”, from the architects Georges-J. Haefeli and Pierre Zoelly, received first prize. The models of the finalist projects from the 1968 competition are being re-exhibited for the first time.

Reinvention: in the final part of the exhibition, visitors are invited to imagine the future redevelopment of the museum using a Lego. As the museum approaches a significant renovation phase, “MIH. 50 Years of a Monumental Showcase” foreshadows efforts to revitalize the Museum Park for decades to come.

A guide to the MIH architecture
The Société d’histoire de l’art en Suisse (SHAS), whose national activities to promote building culture have long been recognised, has published a guide to this exceptional museum entitled “The Musée International d’Horlogerie in La Chaux-de-Fonds”.

Published in English, French, German and written by Nadja Maillard, one of the world’s leading experts on the architecture of the period, this accessible work provides valuable information for visitors to the museum and anyone interested in heritage. It is enriched by 57 illustrations, most of them previously unpublished, including current photographs, old views, archive documents, sections and plans.

New Acquisitions
The past year will go down in the annals of the MIH as one of the most significant in the history of MIH collections, with 280 pieces purchased and received. Among some 20 different donors, one should notably mention two singular personalities, recently deceased, whose generosity has significantly enriched the MIH’s collections.

Michel Huber (1950-2023), an independent designer based in Geneva who graduated in jewellery from the Ecole d’art de La Chaux-de-Fonds, left his mark on the watchmaking world with his “Square” creation for the Ventura brand. This creation testifies to his commitment to pleasingly balanced proportions. The watches in his collection, of which there are around 50, are distinguished by their fluidity, combining extreme finesse with rigorous discipline, transcending the conventional limits of watchmaking.

The collection bequeathed by Eduard Streit (1939-2023) through the Maurice Favre Foundation is distinguished by its exceptional technicality and the fine craftsmanship of the models composing it. Each of the 180 watches carefully and patiently selected by Eduart Streit throughout his life testifies to particular research or technical mastery, adding to our knowledge of the history of Swiss and European watchmaking from the 18th to the 20th centuries.

50th issue of “Le Carillon”, plus a special edition
The “Carillon”, the annual newsletter of the MIH and the amsiMIH, went to press on the same occasion. It is prefaced by star architect Bernard Tschumi, who underlines the unique character of the MIH in its architectural and museographic design. This symbolic 50th issue, expanded to 16 pages, also serves as a catalogue of the 280 or so new acquisitions made in 2023.

A special large-format edition of “Le Carillon” reminds everyone, both retrospectively and prospectively, of the role of the founding pillars of the MIH: the public authorities, the Maurice Favre Foundation and friends of the MIH. It effectively launches a fundraising campaign with the aim of enabling the museum’s flagship exhibition to be transformed once the renovation work on the building is complete.


Musée International d'Horlogerie (MIH)

May 09, 2024