The permanent exhibition at the Museum of History shows selected aspects of civic history from the Middle Ages to the present. Ecclesiastical works of art that predate the Reformation, including the Basel Dance of Death and Basel Cathedral Treasury, count among the highlights. The exhibition in the basement headed “Understanding the World” comprises a magnificent array of medieval tapestries showing both fantasy worlds and scenes of real life, a selection of Renaissance and Baroque collections here grouped together in one “Great Cabinet of Curiosities”, and Basel’s rich archaeological heritage. Among the other highlights of the collection are the coin cabinet and Burgundian Booty.

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Basel Cathedral Treasury

Basel Cathedral Treasury with its thousand-year history ranks among the world’s most important collections of medieval ecclesiastical treasures. It recalls that period in the city’s history when the bishops held sway in matters both sacred and secular. The collection of costly reliquaries, monstrances, crucifixes and other, mostly gold or silver liturgical items amassed over five centuries was spared the devastation of the Iconoclasm. In 1836, however, shortly after the canton was divided into two half-cantons, part of it was auctioned off and scattered to the four winds. The exhibition on the rood screen gallery shows two thirds of the seventy or so works that remained in Basel. The others are now held by museums in Amsterdam, Berlin, London, Munich, New York, Paris, St. Petersburg, Vienna and Zurich.

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Guilds and Societies in Basel

Basel was for a long time dominated by the craft guilds, which governed the city right up to 1798. The craft guilds were professional associations which brought together craftsmen working in the same trade from the rise of the cities in the Late Middle Ages onwards. The guilds governed all matters relating to their trade and in Basel, as in other places, were for many centuries the most powerful economic, political and social force to be reckoned with.

The exhibition on the west gallery shows artefacts attesting to four centuries of rule by the craft guilds. Among them are some items of Baroque silverware marking the apogee of the art of goldsmithing in Basel.

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Ecclesiastical Art Before the Reformation

The choir of the Barfüsser Church makes a perfect setting for this show of 15th- and early 16th-century ecclesiastical art. Winged altarpieces and several individual paintings are here grouped together in an ensemble of Late Gothic wood carving and panel painting. Some of the works were created in Basel and survived the Iconoclasm of 1529; others can be traced back to Central Switzerland or to southwest Germany. The most important exhibit is the monumental Altar to the Virgin from Saint Maria in southern Graubünden, which was made by Ivo Strigel in Memmingen in 1512.

The glass paintings in the aisle under the rood screen date from the same period and are the work of glass painters in Basel and Strasbourg. In terms of both artistry and craftsmanship, they are among the finest examples of the genre in existence.

The artefacts attesting to the role of private devotion in the Middle Ages form a category in their own right. Shown here are pilgrims’ badges, house altars, devotional pictures, prayer beads and other items intended to facilitate prayer and devotion in the home or when travelling.

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The Basel Dance of Death

The Basel Dance of Death was painted during the Council of Basel (1431–1448), possibly under the influence of the plague epidemic of 1439. The 60-m-long mural painted onto the inside wall of the cemetery of the Dominican convent showed forty mortals locked in an encounter with Death. People of all ages, all occupations, and all estates – emperor, empress, bishop, abbess, lawyer, doctor, noblewoman, cook – all are whisked away by Death.

When the Dominican convent was torn down in 1805, only nineteen fragments of the famous mural were saved. These now form the centrepiece of the presentation. To give visitors an idea of just how monumental the original mural was, however, we have also included forty-two sculpted reproductions of the pairs of figures in the original procession.

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Scenes of Real Life and Fantasy Worlds – Medieval Tapestries

The tapestries made in Basel in the 15th century are among the most highly prized items in the entire collection. Some of these colourful depictions of social encounters, scenes of courtship, mythical creatures and “wild men” are heavily idealized renderings of real life, while others are pure fantasy. Some of them up to 6 m long, the tapestries are exhibited alongside related objects of everyday use such as glasses, furniture, coffrets and stove tiles. The aim is to anchor the tapestries in the everyday world of the Late Middle Ages.

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A World in Small – The Great Cabinet of Curiosity

Globes, filigree ivories, crystals, clocks, dried plants, stuffed animals, paintings, miniature sculptures, scientific instruments, antiquities, exotica and all manner of curiosities – scientists and collectors began amassing spectacular Kunstkammer and Wunderkammer in the 16th century. They were motivated by a thirst for knowledge and an interest in history, nature and art. Even today, the collections reflect the inquiring minds and the worldview of an entire era. The exhibition also takes us back to the origins of private collecting in Basel. It focuses on personalities of renown – from Erasmus of Rotterdam to Basilius Amerbach, Remigius Faesch and later Jacob Burckhardt – and presents their collections in a new thematic context.

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Jewels and Cannons – The Burgundian Booty

After vanquishing Charles the Bold of Burgundy in the Battles of Grandson and Murten in 1476, the victorious Swiss returned home with immense haul of treasures and weaponry.

As an ally of the Swiss, Basel was allotted a portion of the war booty. Despite being preserved if only on account of their historical significance, most items were lost over the centuries.

On show here are some artfully wrought gun barrels, original watercolours of Charles the Bold’s lost jewels, and a lamellar cuirass thought to have belonged to Charles the Bold himself.

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The World’s History in Your Hand – Coins and Medals

Coins have been part of everyday life for over two and a half millennia. They are an important source of information about everyday life in Basel and other regions. The coin presentation provides an insight into the premodern financial world and into the form and function of money. How that money was made is reconstructed in the goldsmith’s workshop and mint.

Medals have an obvious affinity to coins, but have never been legal tender. As a means of immortalizing the likeness of the subject in metal, they served purely artistic or propaganda purposes. Among the coins and medals shown here are some that Erasmus of Rotterdam kept as mementos.

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Hidden Worlds – Archaeology in Basel

Here in Basel we are literally sitting on our own past. Archaeological excavations have brought these hidden worlds piece by piece to light: we now know that the Celts built two major settlements on the bend in the Rhine before the Romans made the city later known as Basel part of their world empire. When the Roman troops withdrew, their place was taken by Alamanni, who brought their own culture with them – first and foremost the language out of which the Alemannic dialects still spoken in many parts of Switzerland evolved. The first Episcopal palace was built on Basel’s Münsterhügel or Cathedral Hill during the period of Frankish rule.

Costly grave goods, jewellery, pottery and tools provide vivid testimony to this eventful history. The model settlements and painstaking reconstructions of life in times past based on real discoveries provide a fascinating insight into Basel’s development from Celtic settlement to Episcopal see. Interactive exhibits where visitors can dig, sample, solve puzzles, and listen make this an attractive exhibition for children as well.