In Zurich, there’s always plenty to see and do. Visiting the Rietberg Museum should also be on your list. It is the only museum in Switzerland dedicated to non-European cultures.
Overview: Rietberg Museum
Rietberg Museum Zurich is one of Europe’s top museums for non-European art. More than 70,000 objects are in the Rietberg museum’s collection, including Asian, African, Oceanian, and ancient American items. Researchers, collectors, and art lovers around the world are familiar with the Rietberg Museum’s collections and exhibitions.
Just 20 minutes on foot from Quai Bridge (Quaibrücke), Rietberg Museum also has a lovely view of Lake Zurich. It’s in Rieterpark, Zurich’s biggest park (70,000 m2) with manicured lawns and an impressive garden.
The collections of Rietberg Museum are showcased inside two interconnected buildings, a stately villa (Villa Wesendonck) and a sleek glass structure (Smaragd). The Rieter Park-Villa and Villa Schönberg also belong to the Rietberg Museum.
Spread over several floors, Rietberg Museum showcases a recognized collection of non-European cultural artworks. Amidst the very European-centric museums in Zurich, it’s pretty unique.
Rietberg Museum: The Beginnings
Architect Leonhard Zeugheer built the original Villa Wesendonck, one of the Rietberg Museum’s locations, from 1855 to 1857. The design is inspired by the Villa Albani in Rome. It’s in a beautiful park that Theodor Froebel landscaped.
In 1946, Eduard von der Heydt gifted the city of Zurich his non-European artcollection. By referendum, Villa Wesendonck was chosen in 1949 to house Eduard von der Heydt’s art collection.
The architect Alfred Gradmann renovated Villa Wesendonck in 1951 to 1952. Walls and floors were taken down, lights were added, and bothersome stuccos were removed.
On 24 May 1952, Rietberg Museum opened. The museum opened at Villa Wesendonck in Zurich to house Eduard von der Heydt’s collection of non-European art. By collecting works of art from around the world, von der Heydt was ahead of his time.
Villa Schönberg, located right next to Villa Wesendonck, was acquired by Zurich City in 1976. The additional villa opened in 1978 as an extension of Rietberg Museum; it runs an extensive non-lending library in the villa.
Next to Villa Wesendonck, the Smaragd building doubled the exhibit space. Under the green glass entrance is exhibit space. Grazioli and Krischanitz connected the new building and villa underground to preserve the beauty of both buildings’ facades. It opened in 2007.
Rietberg Museum: The Buildings
The museum’s collections are spread over three 19th-century villas and an underground extension just built between them.
- Villa Wesendonck – Built from 1855 to 1857, this ornate building was the stately villa of Otto Wesendonck and his wife Mathilde Wesendonck. It was built in the Italian Renaissance style by architect Leonhard Zeugheer.
- Villa Schönberg – Built in 1850, it was bought by Otto Wesendonck in 1856 and renovated for his guest Richard Wagner. Wagner was a German composer, author, theater director and conductor.
- Smaragd – Built in 2007, the new Alfred Grazioli and Adolf Krischanitz building lends itself perfectly to exhibits. It is modern, sleek, and neutral.
- Park-Villa Rieter – Built from 1886 to 1888, the villa was built by Alfred Friedrich Bluntschli. It was owned by the Rieter family from Winterthur.
Rietberg Museum Collection
Rietberg Museum has over 70,000 objects in its collection. I’ll give you a quick rundown based on the information that I noted down in the museum:
|Object Type||• 46,381 – Photography|
• 8,673 – Painting / Graphics / Drawings
• 5,991 – Jewelry / Pottery / Nippes
• 3,757 – Figures
• 3,413 – Textiles
• 861 – Masks
• 286 – Instruments
|Type of Acquisition||• 56,173 – Gifts / Legacies|
• 10,219 – Permanent L.
• 3,082 – Purchases
• 688 – Other
|Geographic Area||• 33,411 – India|
• 17,142 – Africa
• 3,582 – Japan and Korea
• 3,065 – China
• 2,679 – South East Asia
• 2,535 – Europe
• 1,791 – North America
• 726 – South America
• 413 – Oceania
• 406 – Middle America
|Age||• 956 – Before the Common Era|
• 1,721 – 1st to 10th Century
• 1,547 – 10th to 15th Century
• 3,335 – 15th to 18th Century
• 6,199 – 19th Century
• 50,650 – 20th Century
• 107 – 21st Century
Information noted by TouringSwitzerland as of September 2022.
This museum has so many interesting pieces from all over the world, I can attest to that. Having been more exposed to European art, I was really surprised to see how different and yet how similar art outside of Europe is.
My favorite part was the underground floor with all the old Chinese art, especially the horse from the Han Dynasty.
As I was there, they also had miniature Chinese Jade pieces in the temporary exhibition. This soft, translucent, silky smooth material is a fascinating stone embedded in Chinese culture. Around 300 jade objects from China are at the Rietberg Museum.
I also loved ancient American art. Mayan art was also quite impressive; one even shows a Mayan prince with a shield and a ceremonial stab.
A marble statue of the Tirthankara Rishabhanatha, one of Eduard von der Heydt’s many gifts, had so many intricate details. Rishabhanatha was the first supreme preacher of Jainism, an ancient Indian religion.
Besides that, I admired Buddhist art. The Berti Aschmann collection had Buddhism sculptures from the Himalayas.
There are also Swiss masks from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and miniature paintings of 18th-century Northern India on the villa’s ground floor. Art from Africa was also represented, but not as much as from China and Japan.
In addition to the collections, Rietberg Museum also distributes Artibus Asiae, a biannual journal on symbolism and the study of prehistory of Asia. It is one of the most successful journals in the German-speaking part of Europe that covers arts and archeology of Asia.
How to Get to Rietberg Museum
Gablerstrasse, 8002 Zürich
|Tram||Zurich, Museum Rietberg (Tram 7)|
|Bus||Zurich, Museum Rietberg (Bus 33)|
|Train||Zurich Enge (11-minute walk)|
Final Thoughts: Rietberg Museum
Take a trip to this ancient Zurich mansion and its neighboring newer building for a glimpse into the past. Located on two floors and underground, this art collection is unlike anything you’ve ever seen.
After you’re done looking at these treasures, grab a coffee and enjoy the view of Lake Zurich. The museum also sells picnic baskets, but you have to order them three days in advance.
Come check out Rietberg Museum. I’d say it’s one of the most interesting art museums in Switzerland.
- Rietberg Museum – https://rietberg.ch/en/
- Gradmann, Alfred, Arch. BSA SIA. Umbau der Villa Rietberg zum Museum Rietberg. Das Werk: Architektur und Kunst, Dezember 1952.
- Leuzinger, Elsy. Orientalia helvetica: das Museum Rietberg in Zurich. Asiatische Studien, 1965.
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Darla Uhl is the owner of TouringSwitzerland.com. Her home is in the German-speaking part of Switzerland. Having lived almost 20 years in Switzerland, she's traveled extensively all over the country.
Darla's favorite regions to visit in Switzerland include Engadin, Lake Geneva, Bernese Oberland, Ticino, and Valais. She loves spending time with her family, hiking, visiting museums, and reading books.