Museum of the Reformation: Paul Doolan Visits a New Museum in Geneva That Presents the History of Reformed Christianity and Calvinism as a Key and Positive Factor in European History

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PERHAPS THE MOST REMARKABLE THING about Geneva's new International Museum of the Reformation is that it has taken so long: in 1959, on the 400th anniversary of the publication of Calvin's Institutes, the idea was first floated that a museum should be founded in Geneva, the Rome of Protestantism. In April the museum finally opened its doors, with an impressive array of objects relating to Calvin and the Reformation in Geneva and its expansion throughout the world.

The new museum is, housed on the ground floor of the eighteenth-century Mallet House, next to the St Pierre Cathedral, where John Knox once preached, and on the spot where the town council declared the city Reformed in May 1536. The museum, like the Reformed churches that it celebrates, is rich in texts. An early English Bible created by refugees fleeing Mary Tudor and dedicated to Elizabeth is prominently displayed, as are early French, Italian and German translations of God's word. A replica of an early printing press stands in a corner that celebrates John Knox, who also found refuge in this city. One room remembers the French Wars of Religion and displays a collection of printed works and manuscripts donated by the art collector Jean Paul Barbier-Mueller. The documents here include autographs from Francis I, Henry III and Henry IV as well as Catherine de' Medici.

Too much text might prove tedious, especially for the visitor who lacks a command of Latin or French. But in the banqueting hall, modern technology permits one to eavesdrop a conversation among Geneva's citizens and reformers, from Calvin to Rousseau, on the topic of predestination. Calvin's views on the subject are famous--humans are depraved creatures, damned to hell, and only a few will be saved by God's grace. The nineteenth-century drawing room allows you to sit on a modern glass chair and enjoy a fifteen-minute audio-visual about the Reformation on your own private screen. Technology is wonderful only when it works: on the day of my visit, alas, it didn't.

The tiny music room, with amazing acoustics, provides the visitor with a menu of musical choices from Luther to Bach to contemporary chorale pieces. Surrounded by the magnificence of the human voice, one can understand that it was music, in particular the metrical psalter, and not the pessimistic dogma of predestination, that was the secret of Calvinism's success.

From Geneva, Calvin's teaching spread to South Africa by way of Holland, America by way of England, and found a home in Scotland and the north of Ireland. It is no wonder that Museum director Isabelle Graessle describes the museum as 'a must in order to understand Geneva as a city, as a culture and as the core of one of the major spiritual streams in Europe and elsewhere. …