The 19th century is generally regarded as the century of nations and nation states. While other countries were busily erecting memorials, monuments and institutions, though, the young federal state of Switzerland was struggling with the idea of setting up a national museum. Plans to create one met with widespread scepticism, and there were also entirely pragmatic reasons for rejecting the enterprise. Almost every one of the cantons had its own collections, reflecting the federal character of the young state. However, encouraged by the popularity of the national art exhibition organised as part of the Swiss national exhibition in Zurich, in 1883 National Council member Salomon Vögelin of Zurich launched the discussion on the founding of a national museum.
After much wrangling over the proposed site of the Swiss National Museum, Zurich finally won through in 1891, seeing off its rivals Lucerne, Basel and Bern. The young architect Gustav Gull drew on various historicising architectural features from the late medieval period and the modern era, combining them to create a single whole. The design of the Swiss National Museum was intended to express a unity between collection, exhibition and architecture. It was also combined with a school of art, thereby satisfying a further important requirement of the era: having both institutions side by side, allowing the past to act as an example and an inspiration for the work of students. Today, the National Museum Zurich is regarded as one of the outstanding 19th-century constructions of its type, and an architectural monument of national importance.
The new building designed by Swiss architects Christ & Gantenbein, opened in 2016, flawlessly complements Gustav Gull’s wing of the building. It houses large, flexible exhibition halls, a modern library and an auditorium for public events.