The artist Niki de Saint Phalle's skeleton sculpture in Fribourg's Museum of Art and History.

Fribourg’s quirky museums | Swiss precision | scrap metal art

Brainy and cheeky. Witty and inventive. Always smoking hot.

Sewing machines, puppets, and scrap metal are drawcards in the pretty medieval Swiss town of Fribourg

What drew me to Fribourg, located beside the Sarine River in the west of Switzerland, was not so much the Gruyère cheese, the Bénichon mustard, or the meringues with double cream. Not the famous funicular, the medieval towers, or the ancient bridges. It was the eccentric museums. Like these…

One of the extraordinary exhibits in the Swiss Sewing Machine and Unusual Objects Museum (c) Franz-Michael Braunschlaeger

The Swiss Sewing Machine and Unusual Objects Museum

It’s hard not to love a place that treats washing and ironing as an artform. The Swiss Sewing Machine and Unusual Objects Museum (aka the Wassmer Museum, after the family who owns it) has a collection of more than 3,000 items that changed the way we live.

Among the inventory are 250 sewing machines dating to 1851. Singer and Bernina, of course, and even machines by Peugeot who, it turns out, made saw blades and coffee and pepper grinders as well as cars. The sewing machine was often a status symbol, and so exquisitely ornate as well as practical.

The sewing machines were introduced during industrialisation, ahead of  electricity. Some models were hand driven (there was a little crank), some had a pedal that moved the needle. As soon as electricity arrived, there were models with a small motor beside them, later integrated.

Housed in a 12th-century cellar, the museum also reflects the evolution of irons, washing machines, vacuum cleaners, dishwashers and refrigerators. Among the “unusual objects”: the metal bathtub belonging to the last tanner in Fribourg, the first jack strong enough to lift a house, footwear for crushing chestnuts, and a blue glass for collecting tears when a loved one dies.

Let’s call it an early food processor: the gnarly chestnut crusher, (c) Musee Wassmer

The Swiss Museum & Centre for Electronic Music Instruments

With more than 5,000 items, this musical museum is based around the collection of Swiss actor and film producer Klemens Niklaus Trenkle who for more than three decades has gathered synthesizers, organs, keyboards, and studio gear.

Enter music geek heaven. There are drum machines, analogue synthesizers, organs and electronic keyboards, sequencers, graphic equalizers, reverb units, and special effects pedals. Wah! Wah!

Educational sound modules (c) Swiss Museum and Centre of Electronic Music Instruments

Curators are especially proud to have rare polyphonic synthesizers – the Yamaha CS-80 and the Roland Jupitor-8 – and the Millioniser, a very cool harmonica named after Walt Miller (Walter Müller, 1925-2011), developed in Switzerland and built in Japan.

You can book for talks, workshops, guided tours and, yes, Playroom sessions, where you get to make your own music. Expect to bump into the odd rock star.

The Swiss Puppet Museum

Another world to get lost in. Centuries of clever articulations, rich fabrics and painted emotions have given us Burmese string puppets, Chinese, Greek and Indonesian shadow puppets, Indian hoop puppets, rod and glove puppets, and Sicilian puppet shows that interpret the epic poems of the French Middle Ages.

The museum was established in 1985 by painter and sculptor Jean Bindschedler and his wife, Marie-Josée Aebi, both puppeteers in Fribourg. They travelled and collected in Asia and Africa. Thanks to donations, it now archives more than 5,000 items, although only 200 to 300 are on show at any one time.

Of botany, Bibles and heavy metal

Tempted by fire, flowers and faith, perhaps? Immerse yourself in the history of firefighting at Le Galetas, a former pumphouse. While more a garden than a museum, the Botanical Garden of the University of Fribourg grows 5,000 plant species. The Bible Orient Museum is an insight into the origins of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Lucerne for art lovers | Quay of life | Masters and makers

But it’s the museum dedicated to the artist with a passion for scrap metal and Formula One racing that leaves the biggest impression in Fribourg.

Jean Tinguely was a home-grown artist whose sculptures are kinetic art machines, full of clicks, clanks and clunks. His work is said to satirise automation and the technological overproduction of material goods, but they also convey a deep understanding of the way the world turns and how the most prosaic materials underpin its existence.

The Jo Siffert Fountain, not far from the very hilly town’s 1889 funicular (which runs on wastewater), is an introduction to Tinguely’s work.

Jean Tinguely’s scrap metal fountain sculpture, in memory of his friend, the racing car driver Seppi Siffert. Photo: Susan Skelly

It is a memorial to his friend, the Formula One driver Seppi “Jo” Siffert, killed in a fiery car accident in 1971 at Brands Hatch, the motor racing circuit in the UK (when he wasn’t even competing).

The two men had planned a fountain for Fribourg together in the 1960s. The Siffert monument, unveiled in 1984, is one of three examples of the artist’s waterworks (others are in Paris and Basel). This one draws the locals, some of whom sit on benches around the pool’s rim on a steamy July day, happily absorbed by it.

Tinguely was married to the artist Niki de Saint Phalle. I come across one of her colourful sculptures in the garden of the Museum of Art and History Fribourg (MAHF) one morning while waiting for the museum to open.

La Grande Lune is representative of the Skinnies or skeleton sculptures. Two dogs, one green with a grey/pink/black coat, the other yellow, dressed in mosaics, face each other and are reflected in a pool of water. They carry a red crayfish whose claws support the moon. The female profile of the latter, blue with red lips, stands out against the sky.

One of Niki de Saint Phalle’s skeleton sculptures in the garden of Fribourg’s Museum of Art and History. Photo: Susan Skelly

Espace Jean Tinguely – Niki de Saint Phalle

This museum just down the hill from the MAHF, and overseen by it, is housed in a building that has been over time a cemetery, tram depot and garage. It opened as a museum in 1998 and is the motherlode of the duo’s artistic endeavours.

When Tinguely died in 1991, de Saint Phalle was entrusted with his artistic legacy, and it was her wish to donate his major works to the canton of Fribourg. It has since been added to by other donors, including many works by de Saint Phalle herself.

Its centrepiece, Altarpiece of Occidental Abundance and Totalitarian Consumerism, is as big as a stage. Let’s call it mechanical mayhem – wheels made from daggers, a toy bunny being punched in the head, parts of bikes, brightly coloured fairground objects.

As big as a stage, Jean Tinguely’s Alterpiece of Occidental Abundance and Totalitarian Consumerism. Photo: Susan Skelly

It’s one of Tinguely’s three major machine works here. La Cascade ou L’Epilepsie Stabilisée, another, has two parts: a suspended luminous mobile above and a base that deploys chainsaws, wrought iron, tree roots mounted on plastic windmills, bicycle parts, rusty chains and scrap metal.

The space also exhibits drawings and works from artist friends such as Keith Haring.

Especially beautiful is La Mythologie Blessée, a 1989 collaborative expression of love’s fragility, its iron-work base by Tinguely animating a gold-painted figure by de Saint Phalle, which is half swan, half snake.

In praise of Nanas

Then there are de Saint Phalle’s lively, beefy Nanas, initially wire netting frames covered with papier-mâché, resin, fabric, paper and strands of wool, symbolizing a joyful, free femininity. At Espace Jean Tinguely – Niki de Saint Phalle, they turn up in her major work, Remembering, a wall of 22 painted polyester and fibreglass fantasy Nanas, whose titles spell out each one’s significance to the duo’s relationship.

One of the Nanas from Niki de Saint Phalle’s Remembering mural, each title a memory of an artistic relationship.          Photo: Susan Skelly


Wherever you are headed in Fribourg, it’s wise to check opening hours. As in much of Europe, it’s Murphy’s Law that the day you visit, the museum will be closed.

Of course, the city of Fribourg is itself something of a museum.  That funicular! All that medieval military heritage: 11 towers, a bulwark, 900 metres of walls, and cobblestoned streets, all perfectly preserved. And open all hours.

The famous funicular in the medieval Swiss town of Fribourg. Photo: Susan Skelly



Etihad Airways connects to Zurich via Abu Dhabi three times a week from Sydney and four times a week from Melbourne. Prices start at $1500 return (ex-Sydney) and $1300 (ex-Melbourne).


The quirky four-star Le Sauvage Hotel is in Fribourg’s Old Town. Rooms start from A$190 per night. Visit:


A Swiss Travel Pass gives unlimited access to travel by train, bus, and boat. It also provides free entry to more than 500 museums.


Photos by Susan Skelly; (c) Swiss Puppet Museum; (c) Swiss Museum and Centre of Electronic Music Instruments; (c) Musee Wassmer;
Excess All Areas flew to Switzerland as a guest of Etihad Airways




Editor. Writer. Traveller. Keeping tabs on all things fab.

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