Dipping into the treasure trove

Entitled ’Biodiversity: vulnerable richness’, extract’s curren
Entitled ’Biodiversity: vulnerable richness’, extract’s current exhibition reveals all sorts of fascinating, previously untold stories. (Photograph: ETH Zurich / ETH collection and archive)
ETH Zurich’s collections and archives include plenty of hidden treasures. Some of these are now on display in the new "extract" exhibition space in the Main Building.

The Fungarium at ETH Zurich boasts an impressive collection of rust fungi, totalling over 70,000 specimens - and they’re just the tip of the iceberg! Taken as a whole, the university’s collections and archives, which span some 20 specialised areas of natural science and cultural history, contain in excess of 10 million artefacts and documents.

The diversity of these holdings is extraordinary. Highlights include the old books, fossils, rocks and minerals of the Earth Science Collections, the ETH Materials Hub for architects, the rich treasures of the Graphische Sammlung and more than 3.5 million photographs in the Image Archive. ETH Zurich also houses two literature archives: the University Archives and the Archives of Contemporary History.

But what led ETH Zurich to acquire these holdings in the first place? "It’s true that many of these collections have evolved over time. But the idea that it’s just some kind of dusty nostalgia trip is completely untrue," says Michael Gasser, head of ETH Zurich Collections and Archives. The countless artefacts, texts and images continue to play an important role in teaching and research. Examples include a recent project involving mathematical models from the Collection of Scientific Instruments and Teaching Aids, which were digitised in 3D and analysed and compared using digital methods.

A digital Treasure Trove

The primary goal is to make the holdings accessible to as many people as possible. Current strategies rely heavily on digitisation, an area in which ETH has been making enormous progress. Platforms such as e-rara and E-Pics, for example, provide worldwide access to over 75,000 valuable books, as well as to periodicals ranging from the second half of the 15th century to the early 20th century. The collection of rust fungus has also been completely digitised, allowing the specimens to be admired on screen in all their glory.

The suggestion that collections and archives might be losing their relevance is wrong on two counts. Firstly, the increasing use of artificial intelligence is fuelling a renewed interest in collections as a treasure trove of useful data. This data can be used to develop new services, which will then perform tasks such as searching for the names of historical figures, places and other "named entities" and automatically linking them together. "Secondly, it’s clear that people still have this tremendous urge to experience physical exhibits in a real-life setting," says Gasser.

Extracted Treasures

This is the thinking behind extract - a brand-new space created by ETH to showcase its collection and archive holdings (see box). Its first exhibition, which focuses on biodiversity, includes fascinating exhibits such as insects from the Entomological Collection and plants from the United Herbaria of the University of Zurich and ETH Zurich. "We’ve deliberately chosen to display exhibits that are relevant to current research topics," says Gasser.

The extract space is part of the new exhibition wing of the ETH Main Building, which also houses the Graphische Sammlung and the new permanent exhibition of the Thomas Mann Archive. All three exhibition spaces are open to visitors throughout the day.

Proof of their popularity came during the most recent edition of Zurich’s Long Night of Museums, when over 1,800 people visited ETH. "The exhibition spaces in the Main Building are a wonderful opportunity for ETH to show that it’s open to everyone," says Gasser. Ivory tower is very much off the menu - bring on the rust fungi!
Franziska Schmid