Man and Time

Permanent and temporary exhibitions

Museum: Musée international d'horlogerie (MIH)  website
Years: Since 1974 / 2020-2021

Musée international d'horlogerie (MIH)

As a public entity in the city of La Chaux-de-Fonds, the Musée international d’horlogerie (MIH) is concerned by cultural policies at various levels (international, national, cantonal and local), and is also engaged in defining these policies, at least at the regional level. According to the terms defining the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) of 2003, the MIH belongs to the field of expertise relating to traditional craftsmanship.

Without having been formally specified as such, ICH has been at the heart of the activities and the exhibition concept since the MIH was created in 1974, symbolised by the museum's subtitle Man and Time. Before the existence of cultural policies promoting awareness of ICH issues, the promotion of watchmaking expertise formed an integral part of the museum's programme as defined by Georges-Henri Rivière in a report prior to the creation of the MIH. In 1963, the famous director of the International Council of Museums (ICOM), also the founder and director of the National Museum of Popular Arts and Traditions in Paris, was commissioned by the political authority of La Chaux-de-Fonds to study the city's museum collections. His report highlighted the vital importance of the MIH collection at that time and the need for an approach encompassing not only the technical perspective but the humanist, social and cultural ones too. When it was inaugurated in 1974, the MIH appeared as a leader of a new generation of museums..

Actually, the issue of ICH was already implanted in the museum well before the MIH existed in its current configuration. In fact, its origins can be traced back to the earliest collections. In 1865, a watchmaking collection was created by professors from the School of Watchmaking in La Chaux-de-Fonds for teaching purposes: ‘Objets’ were already considered tools for learning, studying and passing on watchmaking expertise.

Today, watchmaking heritage swings not only between the museum and cultural policy, but also economic interests. Unlike cultural heritage in other areas, watchmaking has been booming over the last 20 years in Switzerland, economically speaking. As a result, the MIH finds itself amid several policies relating to heritage, which are sometimes contradictory. Since the 2000s, MIH is no longer the only party involved in preserving heritage. Rather, it must find its place amid these cultural, economic, tourism policies and the interests of watchmaking companies.

The political, economic, social and cultural framework within which the MIH has been working since its inauguration in 1974 has undergone profound changes. This framework is all the more difficult to understand since the country's federalist structure is based on the principle of subsidiarity, applied particularly strictly in the cultural domain.

Man and Time

Description of the project / practice / program

By 2020, an important step in ICH issues in the field of watchmaking craftsmanship could be reached thanks to the inclusion of the Craftsmanship of Mechanical Watchmaking and Art Mechanics on the UNESCO Representative List. This listing must not be seen as an end in itself, but rather a tool enabling various safeguarding and promotional measures to be deployed. This perspective generates different expectations: 

  • political (local and national) expectations
  • UNESCO expectations which demands actions of safeguarding and valorization
  • practitioner and public expectations, who will question what is the ICH

The answer will be an exhibition. For the MIH, this listing is not an entirely new field of activity either. It represents an opportunity to reflect upon the museum's practice and to evaluate this in light of the challenges of economic and cultural policies.

The aim is to highlight the various actions which have been undertaken by the museum since 1974 in a temporary exhibition (2020-2021) which will be fully integrated into the permanent exhibition, to emphasise its ICH-related aspects.

In addition to the conventional methods for staging ICH with the presence of craftsmen in a exhibition focussing on the issues around work and workers possibly represented by an object of their choice , photographs  and/or recordings, the exhibition project invite practitioners to reflect on the impact of territorial and cultural policies, and economic issues on their practice and on how their practice is reflected in the public arena (image, discourse). Photography will be used and dissected as a medium which has the potential to fossilise, if not a practice, at least its representation to the public. The exhibition consists of questioning visitors about their own perception of intangible heritage.

How were practitioners of intangible cultural heritage involved?

The MIH was set up as a museum by the municipal authorities in 1902 and physically detached from the premises of the School of Watchmaking in 1974; nevertheless, the museum has not turned its back on practitioners, who are involved at various levels in the museum, on an occasional or permanent basis:

Collection, conservation

1. Through the acquisition, conservation and exhibition of artefacts by practitioners (watches, clocks, automata) and their work tools.

2. Through gathering past and present documents produced by practitioners (archives from independent watchmakers, from the association of watchmakers, from students of the schools of watchmaking, from professional associations).

3. Through the creation of a specialised heritage library (over 7000 titles of treaties, monographs and periodicals from the 17th century to the present day).

Development, exhibition

4. Through temporary exhibitions concerning their expertise: La main et l’outil [Hand and Tool] (1987), Splendeurs de l’émail [The Splendours of Enamel] (1999), Swiss made (2007), Automates & Merveilles [Automata & Marvels] (2012), Artisans du temps [Artisans of Time] (2015), La Neuchâteloise [The Neuchâtel Clock] (2017), Rêves en trois temps [Dreams from Three Eras] (2018).

5. Through the involvement of practitioners in exhibitions (expertise, collections) and events (International museum day, presentation of professional skills, demonstrations [enamelling, gilding, watchmaking, restoration], watchmaking market for old and modern timepieces, conferences, study days, seminars, and publishing works and images on public platforms and social networks.

6. Through marks of recognition given to practitioners, by being awarded distinctions (e.g. the Gaïa Prize and the Horizon Gaïa grant).

7. Through participating in association of watch lovers (the MIH is the headquarters of Chronométrophilia).

Education, transmission

8. Through their practice itself, by the daily presence of watchmakers working in the Antique timepiece restoration centre, the workshop being integrated into the staging of the permanent exhibition, as a scene in the middle of the museum. This centre played an important role during the watchmaking crisis from 1975-1985. 

9. Through their contribution to training watchmaker-restorers (watch restoration interns trained at the MIH Restoration centre and ‘objets’ from collections designed as part of diploma work).

10. Through participation in cultural policy approaches such as filing application forms with UNESCO (watchmaking town planning and watchmaking mechanical expertise).

Photo: (c) A. Henchoz

CV of the author

Régis Huguenin

Régis Huguenin has a Master of Arts degree from the University of Neuchâtel, a Masters in research into the history of industrial societies and economies in Europe from Belfort-Montbéliard University of Technology, and a doctorate in history from both these universities. He has worked for a number of museums in the canton of Neuchâtel, then as the head of heritage for the watch manufacture Jaeger-LeCoultre in the canton of Vaud. Since 2014, he has been a curator-director at the Musée international d'horlogerie in La Chaux-de-Fonds.


  • Practitioners of intangible cultural heritage can be not only occasional mediators of their heritage, but can be part of the museum staff.
  • Museums are not only embedded in cultural policies, but also in economic, social and territorial issues.
  • The museum must be a place of reflection and not of glorification of a practice, an expectation that could be that of politics and the economy.
  • An intangible cultural heritage exhibition is not only a way to share heritage; it can also lead practitioners to think about their practice.
  • An exhibition can offer intangible cultural heritage visibility to a broader public, who can at the same time develop a critical mind towards intangible cultural heritage issues and processes.



26 March 2019 from 09:28 to 09:28



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