The Puppenhausmuseum in Basel, Switzerland, displays thousands of vintage teddies and dolls in spectacular vignettes.
Imagine 2,500 vintage teddy bears under one roof. Add hundreds of doll houses ranging from Victorian to contemporary and even more antique toys from the 18th and 19th centuries, and you’ve got a collector’s dream museum. The Puppenhausmuseum in Basel, Switzerland, is four floors of teddy bear and toy amusement for families, children and anyone with a soft spot for cuddly creatures.
The Puppenhausmuseum—or “doll’s house museum” in English—is the largest of its kind in Europe. It is settled in a historic 1867 building on the edge of Basel’s central Barfusserplatz (public square and tram station) in the heart of the city’s cobblestone Old Town, home to a rich and visible 800-year history.
As a city, Basel is museum heaven. With approximately 40 museums located within the city boundaries, Basel has one of the highest per capita investments in cultural preservation in Europe. And this includes a number of interesting collectibles: From art to antiques, pharmaceutical items to funeral artifacts, musical instruments to firefighting equipment, Basel has a museum dedicated to it. And, of course, there are teddies.
Opened in 1998, the Puppenhausmusuem is privately owned by Gisela Oeri, a member of the family who owns Roche pharmaceutical company based in Basel, who wanted to share her growing collection with the public.
Museum curators take great pains to make a visit to the facility both entertaining and engaging. Items are behind glass but not lined up and labeled like some archival vault interesting to scholars only.
No, this museum is crammed full of interesting vignettes: groupings of teddies and toys playing together like actors interacting on a stage of elaborate props and designs. Teddy bears attend school, go to the doctor, perform in circuses and, yes, even have picnics. Visitors are voyeurs looking at a snapshot of the bears’ theatrical little worlds—mostly representations of idealized aspects of our own.
A favorite is the teddy bear racing car exhibit that can be mechanically activated at the push of a button. A packed audience of excited bears watch from bleachers as bigger teddies in go-cart-size blue and red racing cars circle the track. Other exhibits, such as the one filled with antique carnival toys, also come to life, whirling and spinning one by one at ten-minute, push-of-a-button intervals as music plays.
While these creative exhibits amuse kids and parents, it’s the fourth floor that will awe collectors. Every teddy enthusiast knows the tale of President Roosevelt’s failed hunting expedition in 1902, which launched the popularity of the teddy bear. According to the museum, a place of honor on the fourth floor is given to those teddies that had their heyday in children’s playrooms shortly after the turn of the 20th century. Here’s where you’ll find the museum’s oldest bear, dating to 1904, which is rod-jointed and displayed with the letter of purchase and an X-ray to prove authenticity. Nearby is another historic bear that some say looks like Roosevelt; he gave this bear to a friend early in the 20th century.
But if you are looking for a specific item—like any one of the large number of Steiff bears from all decades in the collection—finding it is easy. Each floor has a touch-screen computer information station so visitors can search detailed information and historical background about individual pieces in the entire collection.
Collectors will also appreciate the care that’s gone into the renovation of the building. Each floor is wheelchair accessible. State-of-the-art ventilation systems and fire detectors have been installed to protect the old exhibits from any damage. Additionally, the special glass fiber lighting system, which does not radiate ultraviolet light and heat, protects the artifacts, so generations to come will be able to visit these bears in their natural habitats.