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The Rupp Report

The Rupp Report: A Magical Mystery Tour Of Ancient Textiles

Jürg Rupp, Executive Editor

Usually, the Rupp Report is not the forum for advertising or promoting any kind of events that are not directly related to its readers. For this Rupp Report, the author made an exception: It's about the famous Abegg Foundation in Riggisberg, at Lake Thun in the Swiss Bernese Oberland.


Many readers of the Rupp Report are travelers, and most probably, globetrotters. Some of them travel for weeks at a time. And in some weeks, some of them come to Switzerland for business or leisure. And if these people are not driving their own car, they rent a car at the airport to be flexible for their business trip. And sometimes, these business people sit bored in a hotel room and have some spare time. And all these people have something in common: they are working with textiles. So here is an idea for a trip outside the beaten path of business.

Another Type Of Museum

Usually, all these business people are dealing with the most advanced technologies, from fibers to ready-made garments. Rarely, somebody asks about the background or the history of textiles. Many of the these people like to visit museums and galleries. In general, these museums exhibit all kinds of art including sculptures, paintings, antiques, and such. But how many museums exist that exhibit old textiles? Not many, the Rupp Report supposes, and not many people know that textiles were already being produced 5,000 years ago. However, for interested parties, here is a place in Switzerland where one can learn about and see old textiles:

The Foundation

In December 1961, Werner and Margaret Abegg founded the Abegg Foundation after long private collection activities. Their interest and commitment from the start was focused on the research and preservation of old textiles. The foundation consequently had five main tasks:

− to establish a comprehensive collection of woven textiles, starting with the Abeggs' private collection;

− to create a museum featuring fine and applied artworks from antiquity through the Baroque period and to present annually changing special exhibitions featuring works from the textile collection's sophisticated and rich resources;

− to offer a textile conservation and restoration program, and implement and operate a college-level degree program for the training and education of future professionals;

− to fund a public scientific library with an online catalog with the main focus on applied arts, textile arts and conservation; and

− to promote a scientific exchange in the textile arts sector through the establishment of a research institute, organization of conferences and publication of relevant materials.

The Founder
Abegg is a very famous family name in the Zurich area. The Abegg family members worked mostly in textiles, and even more in the silk trade, which had its main actors in Zurich. Werner Abegg, a Swiss textile industrialist, was born Dec. 9, 1903, and passed away on July 13, 1984. In 1924, Abegg took the lead over the family-owned textile factory in Northern Italy. His implemented modernizations in the mill were a great success and generated considerable wealth. In 1947, the company was sold, and Abegg moved to New York City for some time.

Even in his young days, Abegg started to collect historical textiles, paintings and crafts. In 1961, he founded the Abegg Foundation, and he moved the collection in 1967 into a newly built prestigious building complex at Riggisberg, where he also took up residence.

The Abegg Foundation
The Abegg Foundation's collection comprises textiles and art objects from Europe, the Middle East and regions along the Silk Road. Its world-famous collection of ancient textiles dates from the fourth century B.C. up to the year 1800 C.E. Highlights include large wall hangings from ancient Egypt, as well as European fabrics and liturgical vestments from the 12th to the 18th century. Other centers of attention include collections of eighth- and ninth-century Central Asian weavings as well as silk robes from the Liao Dynasty (907-1125) in China.

An extremely important task is conservation and restoration, with the main emphasis on textiles. No doubt the Abegg Foundation is one of the most prestigious institutes for this task. Apart from its public areas, the foundation also educates students in the art of conservation of old fabric and textile artifacts.

The foundation offers a five-year degree course to one student per year in cooperation with the Swiss Conservation-Restoration Campus and the Bern University of Arts (BUA). The students choose their areas of specialization at the beginning of their studies and receive individual supervision by the head of the textile conservation workshop and the senior conservators.

The author remembers a story that was told to him some 20 years ago in Riggisberg by the former head of the restoration department: She explained that some years ago, probably in the 1980s, the museum had to restore a linen coat that was said to be owned by St. Francis of Assisi (1181 - 1226). During the restoration of the coat, the team discovered a hole that had been repaired and sewn in with a corresponding linen fabric.

One year later, another job was to restore old linen fabrics from a church in Belgium. And this fabric had a hole with the exact measurements of the patch that was in the coat of St. Francis of Assisi. Amazing, isn't it?

Changing Exhibitions
The most interesting part for visitors is the exhibitions. Every year, the museum presents an exhibition dedicated to a special sector of ancient textile art. This year, from April 28 to November 10, the subject is "The Pleasures of Collecting Works of Art and Textiles from Historic Private Collections." The exhibition will be open daily from 2:00 p.m. to 5.30 p.m.

For book aficionados, the foundation is an El Dorado: It also includes a public professional library. The library houses literature covering textiles as well as art in general, painting, architecture, history, archeology and sculpture from ancient times up to the early 19th century. Interested parties may consult current periodicals, the card catalogs and the online catalog in the reading room. The catalogs list some 60,000 entries and 200 current periodicals.

The museum is a never-ending source of amazing discoveries. If this report has the flavor of being very enthusiastic about the Abegg Foundation, then one can say "mission accomplished." More information about the exhibition and the foundation can be found at abegg-stiftung.ch. The Rupp Report wishes a safe and pleasant Magical Mystery Tour.

April 16, 2013