Born of boredom, the “Museum” created by the Lausanne press corps in May 1923 was, Jonathan Conlin discovers, actually quite interesting.

Jon is co-founder of TLP.

The first museum of the Lausanne conference opened in the press bar at the Lausanne Palace Hotel in May 1923. This site-specific installation consisted of a single vitrine in the centre of the hacks’ watering hole, filled with symbolic objects intended to tell the story of the negotiations through a bricolage of visual puns.

Atop the case a stuffed duck (canard = rumour or false report, geddit?) stood guard, surrounded by the cut-out mastheads of the world’s leading newspapers. Alongside a printed catalog each of the objects inside carried its own label, helping visitors make sense of a heterogeneous group of objects, which included a key, a clod of soil, a pea, a cracked vase.

While some of the assemblages were easy to decode – the key represented “the key of the Straits”, for example – others defied easy interpretation. The broken vase was le maltraité de Sèvres – a pun on the 1920 treaty of Sèvres. The clod of earth le terrain d’entente (“room for compromise”). The pea: le poids de l’argument. You need to know French to get the humour (poids = pois). But French was also the language of the renowned artist Marcel Duchamp and the Dadaist movement, whose creations revelled in similar jeux de mots. The press corps’ exhibit was cutting-edge conceptual art, as much Dada as ha-ha.


For its many admirers the museum offered a better guide to the conference’s twists and turns than any newspaper. Others were ready to concede that, well, “you had to be there” to get the jokes. But then, as the Petit Parisien‘s Andrée Viollis noted:

How much can you expect? Maybe it’s not so funny seen from afar. But when there’s no news to report the little ones must have their amusement. And the grownups – even the experts accredited to the conference – they laughed too.[1]

Andrée Viollis in Le Petit Parisien, 7 May 1923.

A century on, making statements out of objects identified with the Lausanne conference is still going on – by curators and artists alike. But it’s no longer played for laughs.

MAIN IMAGE: Attr. Jean-Claude Duplessis and C. N. Dodin, Vase urne antique, Sèvres Manufactory, c. 1755-7, soft-paste porcelain. Gift of the Samuel Kress Foundation, 1958. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 58.75.112a,b


[1] Andrée Viollis, “Le Musée de la Conférence de Lausanne”, Le Petit Parisien, 7 May 1923. See also “Le Tour de ville: Musée…hum!”, La Tribune de Lausanne, 5 May 1923.

Subscribe to TLP