Panda-monium in Switzerland

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By Adam H. Graham

The WWF (World Wildlife Fund) is turning 50, and the Swiss National Museum in Zurich threw a quadrilingual party (sorry Romansch, English is the 4th language) last night to celebrate today’s opening of a summer-long exhibition about the history of the organization. The party’s guest roster included some very A-list taxidermy like a magnificent Bengal tiger from Burma, an elegant polar bear, and a covert of coots from Coto Doñana. A few living celebrities made an appearance as well, namely ‘Chocolate’ the very free-range chicken-turned-mascot for the Swiss cooperative grocery chain Migros, so popular she has 53,000 friends on Facebook.

But make no mistake, this was and is a panda party. There were almost as many pandas there as there were remaining in the wild—1,200 according to WWFs figures. These partying pandas included the original WWF logo ink-sketches by Sir Peter Scott, Giant Panda from Andy Warhol’s 1983 Endangered Species screenprints, an adorable taxidermy baby panda from the Zoological Museum of The University of Zurich, and Panda Eyes, a very cool motion-sensor-activated art piece by Jason Bruges Studio, assembled from a hundred iconic WWF Panda change banks.

The exhibition, debuting today, is not your ordinary eco-family-friendly museum show. The landmark exhibition designed by Zurich architects Ralph Meury, Andrin Schweizer, and design-firm Büro4 opens with the dramatic Burning Room, a simulated living room on fire which forces visitors to experience the loss of human habitat upon entering the exhibition, reminding them that an area of rain forest the size of four football fields is lost every minute. Also included is a “Footprint Garden” in the museum’s courtyard, where visitors can stroll through various zones made up of wooden sheds and gardens to learn about the carbon footprint of everything from birthday parties to picnics. There’s even a Holiday Zone that compares the carbon emissions of various modes of transportation. Kids might enjoy the cute bunny pens, the Living Zone’s sustainable model home, or a meander through the edible garden abloom with native Swiss plants like Alpine currant and round-headed rampion.

Though the kids’ programs are fun, some of the deeper-cutting exhibits are  the real standouts, and better suited to knowledgeable eco-minded travelers who already know a thing or two about conservation. WWF’s clandestine Operation Lock program, aimed at ending poaching in Africa, is one such thought-provoking display. Others include discussions about how international WWF chapters didn’t always agree on topics and often fought for the “right to decide their own programme for themselves, irrespective of what the rest of the family jointly decided to do,” (a statement by H.R.H. Prince Philip, president of the organization from 1981-1996.)  These exhibits not only reveal the organization’s 50-year struggle to define localized animal conservation in an increasingly globalized world, but they take a creative and contemporary approach to chronicling the grassroots organization which began as the undertaking of few British ornithologists and turned into 5-million-person-supported zeitgeist with projects underway in 100+ countries.

For those who want an even deeper understanding, the organization’s story is recounted in gorgeous, glossy detail in the exhibition’s accompanying book, Saving The World’s Wildlife: The WWF’s First 50 Years, written by curator Alexis Schwarzenbach and published in German, French, and English. It’s a fascinating read, threaded with the message that the cost of conservation is eternal vigilance, but also a reminder that the presence of cuddly pandas makes life a whole lot better.

WWF: A Biography, Swiss National Museum, Museumstrasse 2, Zurich
41 (0)44 218 65 11; www.musee-suisse.ch
Tue–Sun 10am–7pm;
Thu 10 am–9 pm;
Admission, $11; children under 16, free.
20% reduction on train/museum combo when purchased from an SBB Rail agent anywhere in Switzerland.