Inside the Reformation Museum of Geneva

(Reto Albertalli for The New York Times)
(Reto Albertalli for The New York Times)

Finding the International Museum of the Reformation is almost as complicated as explaining the historical movement it chronicles.

You must first navigate the labyrinth of Geneva’s Old Town, down narrow, cobblestone streets and then up a long flight of stone stairs, skirting the shadows cast by a towering 13th-century cathedral. Finally you arrive at the tranquil courtyard of the Maison Mallet, the 14-room 18th-century mansion housing the museum, which opened in 2005.

From the outset, its director, Isabelle Graesslé, knew she faced a challenge. “It’s not easy to do a museum around a concept,” she said with a chuckle.

Particularly a concept as sweeping as the Reformation, the splintering of the Roman Catholic Church that rocked Europe in the 1500s and led, among other things, to a rethinking of Christian dogma and practice, cultural upheavals, wars and massacres, the redrawing of national borders and new forms of art and music.

All were linked in some way to the Reformation’s principal architects, Martin Luther and John Calvin. Calvin did much of his most important writing and teaching in Geneva, which is why the museum is here and in the Maison Mallet specifically; it was built on the site of the cathedral cloister where the citizens of Geneva voted to adopt Calvin’s Reformation precepts in 1536.

Some of what happened in the Reformation was ugly, but much of it was uplifting. It was rooted in complex, often arcane theological ideas. After half a millennium of evolution, religion as practiced by many Protestant churches today is distant from the “spiritual excesses” — to use Ms. Graesslé’s term — advanced by the Reformers.

Given how practices have changed, museum officials set out to create a space that contemporary visitors, Protestant or not, would find appealing and meaningful, with creative high- and low-tech exhibits and a dash of humor. In 2007 that approach earned it the Council of Europe Museum Prize, awarded annually since 1977 to museums that contribute to a “greater understanding of the rich diversity of European culture.”

The museum’s hands-on displays invite visitors to press buttons and pull levers and knobs that do everything from operate a 16th-century printing press — the technology that spread Reformation ideas — to crank up a section of a chimney to reveal a secret compartment for a Bible (indicating how early Protestants often had to practice their religion clandestinely).

Among the 618 objects on display on a recent visit were rarities demonstrating the far-flung impact of the Reformation, including a copy of a Reformation-era Bible carried on the Mayflower. A central exhibit was an ornate dining room for the main thinkers of the Reformation, with “talking” table settings intended to instruct.

“God freely chooses some human beings from among the sinners and leads them to salvation, and damns the rest for all eternity,” said the Calvin plate, glowing as it spoke in French. (With an audio translation device, visitors can listen in English or German as well.)

“Debates on predestination are a thing of the past,” retorted the plate of Jean-Alphonse Turrettini, a prominent Swiss theologian who lived nearly a century later. “My guiding principle is that, ‘Religion consists in the way it is practiced, for believing well cannot make up for living badly.’ ”

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SOURCE: The New York Times
John Hanc

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