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The Fairy Tale Factory

The Fairy Tale Factory
Laurence Berlamont-Equey

The sixth large-scale temporary exhibition since the reopening of the Musée d’ethnographie de Genève (MEG) in November 2014, "The Fairy Tale Factory" marks the end of a first cycle which has taken the MEG on journeys from one continent to another and across the centuries. "The Fairy Tale Factory" offers an intense, unforgettable experience. Made up of several hundred objects taken from the museum’s collections or on loan, it also boasts many contemporary creations: four illustrators, a costume-designer and a playwright have contributed to it. In addition, "The Fairy Tale Factory" proposes an as lively as ever programme of different activities for a wide public: a whole range of different types of visits, encounters, workshops and shows.



Fairy tales are far from being reserved for children and not as innocent as they may seem. With its new exhibition "The Fairy Tale Factory", the MEG spotlights European traditional popular stories. From 2019 on, visitors will be able to plunge into the fantastic world of tales, discover their history as well as the many forms of exploitation to which they have been subjected.

"Once upon a time..." We all know stories beginning with these four words. From Finland to the Mediterranean, from the Celtic countries to the Balkans, tales are part of our common heritage. They belong to our collective imagination. In its new exhibition, the MEG explores this universe which is both familiar and totally fantastical.

Eight tales, little or unknown to the general public, are staged in "Theatres of the imagination". Magic lanterns, dioramas, mirrors, optical illusions and changes of scale allow us to completely immerse ourselves in the story and throw off the rules of the real world. Fabrice Melquiot, the director of the Am Stram Gram theatre, has written contemporary versions of these often ancestral narratives for the MEG. But their subjects remain topical: the difficulty of finding a spouse, the relationship with nature and death, or the insatiable thirst for power. Five illustrators present their vision of the tales in drawings, paintings and paper cut-outs. Objects taken from the Museum’s European collections bring them to life.

Visitors also discover the other side of the picture. Another part of the exhibition reveals the European history of this oral tradition which originally possessed almost as many variants as there were narrators. Collected since the Renaissance, tales now find themselves rigidly set in a single version corresponding to the expectations of contemporary readers. Who today would want to read the variant of Little Red Riding Hood in which the child eats the flesh of her grandmother who was killed and roasted by the wolf?

Immensely popular and part of Europe’s collective imaginary, tales were inevitably used to influence people’s minds and orientate their behaviour. Often conveying moral messages, they made it possible to instill in children the virtues of bourgeois society. The political world also took possession of them, for propaganda or protest purposes. This was the case for the Nazi party which produced films transposing the Grimm brothers’ stories to the Germany of the 1930s. Or the feminist movement, which has made witches anti-patriarchal figures. To this day, everyone can still interpret tales in their own way and project their own values onto them...



The scenography of "The Fairy Tale Factory" exhibition was entrusted to Holzer Kobler Architekturen following an invitation to tender extended to five scenographers. Founded in Zurich in 2004 by the architects Barbara Holzer and Tristan Kobler, this firm has carried out a hundred or so scenographic projects at both a national and international level. These include the permanent exhibition visits of the Dresden Military History Museum (2011) and the Grimm World Kassel (2015) in Germany, as well as the temporary exhibitions Qin, the Eternal Emperor and His Terra Cotta Warriors at the Bern History Museum (2013) or Prison at the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum (2019).

The scenographic project of "The Fairy Tale Factory" exhibition is distinguished by three parts, all offering very different ways of experiencing the visit. Like a threshold separating the real and the imaginary world, the prologue takes the form of a simple, sober access area, whose walls murmur the stock phrase "Once upon a time..." in many European languages. It leads to a monumental wrought-iron gate marking the entrance to the exhibition’s central space. Visitors pass through the doorway to immediately discover a new atmosphere reminiscent of that reigning backstage in a theatre or in the alleys of a maze. This is the exhibition section entitled The Strings of the Tales, characterized by its functional aspect. Here, as at the Pompidou Centre, the emphasizing of the load-bearing structure, the tubes used for the technical installations in the construction of the building and its fittings, is elevated to the status of a design concept: the charm of these utilitarian corridors becomes a kind of guiding principle, forming in itself a truly experimental universe.

These narrow passages wind their way between the eight "Theatres of the Imagination" which compose the heart and third section of the exhibition. These enclosed spaces are freely arranged around the room and therefore accessible to visitors at will. The interior of these spaces cannot be seen from the outside; you enter to find yourself in the middle of a specific universe in which illusion reigns. Here each tale is staged to match its imaginary world or the way it has been treated graphically by one of the four illustrators. The walls, floor and ceiling are part of the place’s atmosphere and create a mood linked to the tale’s theme (drunkenness, excess, wealth, etc.). These immersive spaces make use of the objects’ scale, the unusual nature of the materials or the brightness of the colours and lighting... The visitor’s curiosity is thus stimulated by the desire to discover all these strange, concealed rooms.



© Radek Brunecky