Keyvisual der Ausstellung «Zum Geburtstag viel Recht. 175 Jahre Bundesverfassung».

Happy you have rights day

175 years of the Federal Constitution

Exhibition | accessibility.time_to


For the past 175 years, Switzerland has always had a democratic constitution. The legal document that underpins the federal state has a direct and indirect impact on day-to-day life. And because daily life has been constantly changing since 1848, the Federal Constitution has also been adapted to move with the times. To mark the 175th anniversary, the National Museum Zurich is exploring the history of the Swiss Federal Constitution, with a particular focus on fundamental rights. Visitors can take a playful look at the interplay between political rights, obligations and personal freedoms.


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Happy you have rights day. 175 years of the Federal Constitution

National Museum Zurich | 17.3.2023 - 16.7.2023
published on 15.3.2023

Switzerland has had a democratic constitution since 1848. The exhibition traces the 175-year history of the Federal Constitution, shining a light on fundamental rights and civil liberties. It invites visitors to take a playful look at Switzerland’s Constitution, which has been revised multiple times and which continues to shape our day-to-day lives – more than we might think.

1848 saw the creation of the Swiss federal state and with it, the first Federal Constitution – the country’s basic rule book and the centrepiece of every democracy. At the same time, the Federal Constitution in Switzerland is continually developed and refined by the electorate. Social change and political conflicts have led to a number of constitutional revisions.

The Federal Constitution was negotiated in just 51 days between February and April 1848. Following votes in the cantons, the Swiss Federal Diet enacted it on 12 September that year. The National Council and Council of States were elected, and the first Federal Council appointed. This story has been told many times before, which is why the exhibition at the Swiss National Museum focuses instead on the development of fundamental rights and civil liberties. On the one hand, the first Constitution only explicitly set out sporadic fundamental rights, such as freedom of the press and religious freedom. On the other, civil liberties – such as suffrage, freedom of establishment and conscription – initially only applied to men of Christian faith.

It took decades-long political discussions and wrangling to make the Federal Constitution into a basic legal document applying to the majority of the country. It also required numerous adaptations and amendments and two complete revisions. Along the way, however, it was not only the Constitution that changed, but also – in a related manner – the form of government. While the federal state was a representative democracy in 1848, it became a direct democracy with the introduction of the optional referendum in 1874 and the right to submit initiatives in 1891.

Women were also granted full civil liberties in 1971, which meant that Switzerland's democracy doubled in size overnight. Just three years later, in 1974, the development of fundamental rights in Switzerland got a further boost with the ratification of the European Convention on Human Rights, which has significantly influenced the administration of justice in Switzerland ever since. More recent fundamental rights, such as the protection of privacy and the right to a fair trial, were added to the Federal Constitution when it was completely revised in 1999.

The Federal Constitution now impacts people’s day-to-day lives more than many might think. Fundamental rights define scope for action and protect against disproportionate state intervention. Four interactive games allow visitors to explore the path to citizenship, the limits of free speech, the protection of privacy and the right to a fair trial.

The National Museum Zurich joins visitors to explore the eventful history of the Federal Constitution and through interactive games helps people understand what it means to have fundamental rights. Because the Federal Constitution is more than just a revered document. It is part of our lives and affects us all. On this note, wishing everyone a happy you have rights day.


Fundamental democratic rights

This sculpture, which incorporates three human rights texts, serves to reminds us what all democracies are based upon. The work was created in honour of the Basel revolutionary Peter Ochs, who proclaimed the Helvetic Republic in 1798. Two hundred years later, the sculpture was presented to the Federal Palace to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Swiss constitution. Bettina Eichin, Die Menschenrechte, 1999 – 2000, cast bronze.

Property of the Swiss Confederation, Federal Office of Culture, Bern. Photo: © Swiss National Museum

Helvetia or Liberty

Many of the bourgeois rebels of the 1848 movement had become politically established by the time the constitution was completely revised in 1874. For one municipality in the canton of Vaud, this Helvetia with a revolutionary cap and a Swiss cross proved too revolutionary. Gustav Courbet subsequently recreated her as Liberty with a star replacing the cross. Gustave Courbet, Helvetia, 1875, plaster.

Ville de La Tour-de-Peilz. Photo: © Swiss National Museum

Will for freedom

Spartacus led a slave revolt in ancient Rome. This figure shown freeing himself from shackles embodies the archaic will for freedom. While the Ticino artist Vincenzo Vela was working on his statue of Spartacus, republicans throughout Europe were striving for civil liberties and democratic rights. Vincenzo Vela, Spartaco, 1847 – 1849, original plaster cast.

Museo Vincenzo Vela, Ligornetto, property of the Swiss Confederation. Photo: © Swiss National Museum

Federal constitution of 1848

The first civil constitution was drafted within a few weeks. Two-thirds of the cantons said ‘Yes’. On 12 September 1848, it was adopted by the Diet. Switzerland became a representative democracy with a bicameral system, and thereby – politically speaking – an island in the middle of Europe. Federal Constitution of the Swiss Confederation of 12.9.1848, Bern. Facsimile with two cords.

Swiss Federal Archives. Photo: © Swiss National Museum

The road to citizenship

A Swiss passport entitles the holder to the right of residence and voting rights. Citizenship is regulated at a federal, canton and municipality level. It is either inherited (ius sanguinis) or acquired through a naturalization process. Citizenship confers freedom of domicile and voting rights to Swiss adults, and obliges adult Swiss men to perform military service. Dual citizenship has been allowed since 1992.

© Swiss National Museum

Article 13: Right to privacy

The Federal Constitution protects traditional aspects of privacy, such as a person’s apartment or correspondence. However, it also ensures that access to personal data is restricted. Technological developments present a particular challenge in both areas. New surveillance technologies such as cameras and drones threaten traditional spheres of privacy. Huge quantities of data that can be processed by big data analytics technology endanger the digital integrity of the individual.

© Swiss National Museum

Article 16–17: Freedom of expression and freedom of the media

Freedom of expression protects the right of people to form an opinion and disseminate it publicly. The term “opinion” is understood to embrace convictions and statements. The limits of Freedom of expression are exceeded when the rights of others are infringed upon. Freedom of the media includes freedom of the press, radio and television and the right to communication in the Internet and on social media. The state is not allowed to censor. However, there is an ongoing debate on the issue of supranational regulations for Internet companies.

© Swiss National Museum

The new canton of Jura

On 24 September 1978, after a 30- year tug of war between Bernese loyalists and Jura separatists, 82.3% of Swiss voters said “Yes” to the creation of the canton of Jura. The new canton was added to Article 1 of the Federal Constitution. In Article 80, the number of members of the Council of States was increased from 44 to 46. Celebrating the referendum result in front of the Town Hall in Delémont, 24.9.1978.

© Swiss National Museum / ASL

The new canton of Jura

If someone says they have acquired the “red passport”, they mean that they have become naturalized. Switzerland set the hurdles high for naturalization. Since the 1970s, there have been intense debates over who should and shouldn’t be allowed to receive the passport. After numerous referendums on the issue, the hurdles have been lowered only marginally. Swiss passport, series 1985.

Federal Office of Police fedpol

Incorruptible Lady Justice

In 1997, Switzerland signed the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Pestalozzi Children’s Foundation commemorated the 20th anniversary of this legal milestone with this Super-Lady Justice. Since the Renaissance, Justitia – the goddess of justice – has been portrayed with a blindfold and scales. Art Foundry St. Gallen, Justitia, 2019, Bronze.

Stiftung Kinderdorf Pestalozzi, Trogen. Photo: © Swiss National Museum

A view of the exhibition.

© Swiss National Museum

A view of the exhibition.

© Swiss National Museum

A view of the exhibition.

© Swiss National Museum

A view of the exhibition.

© Swiss National Museum

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Exhibition imprint

  • Overall management Denise Tonella
  • Curators and Concept Erika Hebeisen, Michael Kempf
  • Project direction Erika Hebeisen, Michael Kempf
  • Scenography Rappaport Szenographie Architektur GmbH, Christa Held, Alain Rappaport
  • Project assistant Naomi Eggli
  • Project coordination Sophie Dänzer
  • Scientific advisors André Holenstein, Helen Keller, Vanessa Rüegger, Julia Tiefenbacher
  • Advisory committee Heidi Amrein, Beat Högger, Markus Leuthard, Sabrina Médioni, Denise Tonella
  • Controlling of project Sabrina Médioni
  • Cultural Services and Museum Education Gerda Bissig, Lisa Engi, Vera Humbel
  • Games Playing History UG & Co. KG, Martin Thiele-Schwez, Michael Geithner, Lauritz Daher
  • Advertising graphic Weicher Umbruch, Andrea Münch, Markus Läubli
  • Advertising graphic Roli Hofer
  • Technical management Ladina Fait, Mike Zaugg
  • Exhibition construction Bashir Ezzerari, Janine auf der Mauer, Marc Hägeli, Dave Schwitter, Philippe Leuthardt
  • Conservation management Tino Zagermann
  • Conservation and montage of objects Natalie Ellwanger, Iona Leroy, Sarah Longrée, Charlotte Maier, Jürg Mathys, Ulrike Rothenhäusler, Tino Zagermann, Christian Alder, Stahl und Schweiss
  • Lending and logistics of objects Christian Affentranger, David Blazquez, Simon D’Hollosy, Reto Hegetschweiler, Markus Scherer, Claudio Stefanutto, Samira Tanner, Angela Zeier
  • Photography Jörg Brandt, Felix Jungo
  • Picture library Fabian Müller, Andrea Kunz
  • IT / Web Danilo Rüttimann, René Vogel
  • Animated film YK Animation Studio GmbH, Joder von Rotz, Fela Bellotto
  • Media stations Alex Baur, Thomas Bucher, Ueli Heiniger, Pasquale Pollastro, Danilo Rüttimann, René Vogel
  • Podcast Audiobande, Kollektiv für Audio-Abenteuer
  • Marketing and Communication Andrej Abplanalp, Anna-Britta Maag, Sebastiano Mereu, Carole Neuenschwander Alexander Rechsteiner
  • Translations Martina Albertini, Bill Gilonis, Language Factory, Marco Marcacci, Laurence Neuffer, Übersetzungsdienst der Standeskanzlei Graubünden,

Items generously loaned by

  • Archives de la construction moderne – EPFL, Lausanne
  • Archives du Tribunal fédéral suisse, Lausanne
  • Bernisches Historisches Museum, Bern
  • Gosteli-Stiftung, Archiv zur Geschichte der schweizerischen Frauenbewegung, Worblaufen
  • Josef Felix Müller, St. Gallen
  • Jüdisches Museum der Schweiz, Basel
  • Kunst Museum Winterthur
  • Kunsthaus Zürich, Grafische Sammlung
  • Kunstmuseum Bern, Depositum der Schweizerischen Eidgenossenschaft, Bundesamt für Kultur, Gottfried Keller-Stiftung
  • Kunstmuseum Luzern
  • Museo d'arte della Svizzera italiana, Lugano. Collezione Città di Lugano
  • Museo Vincenzo Vela, Ligornetto, Ufficio federale della cultura, Berna
  • Museum für Kommunikation, Bern
  • Museum Ludwig, Köln
  • République et Canton du Jura, Délémont
  • Sammlung Dr. Christoph Blocher, Herrliberg
  • Schweizerische Eidgenossenschaft, Bundesamt für Bauten und Logistik, Bern
  • Schweizerische Eidgenossenschaft, Bundesamt für Kultur, Bern
  • Schweizerische Nationalbibliothek, Bern
  • Schweizerisches Bundesarchiv, Bern
  • Schweizerisches Sozialarchiv, Zürich
  • Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie
  • Stiftung Deutsches Historisches Museum, Berlin
  • Stiftung für Kunst, Kultur und Geschichte, Winterthur
  • Stiftung Kinderdorf Pestalozzi, Trogen
  • Stiftung Typorama, Bischofszell
  • Ville de La Tour-de-Peilz
  • Winterthurer Bibliotheken, Sammlung Winterthur
  • Zentralbibliothek Zürich, Graphische Sammlung