Juan S. Hernandez, Feuerwerkinstallationen Castillo, Octolán de Morelos, Oaxaca. Mexico, 1960. Sammlung Valetin Jaquet, ME 95

The Museum of Cultures in Basel presents the night as the subject of an exhibition in a, how could it be otherwise, multicultural story. The exhibition guides visitors through the night, showing art and everyday objects from five continents.

Today’s night in modern (European) society differs from the night of two centuries or even longer ago. Light or noise pollution at night are notions of the last century.

Nights used to be mainly pitch-dark periods between dusk and first dawn. Before the advent of gas and electricity, modern media and means of transport by fossil fuels, a different rhythm of life and perception of night existed.

Several topics of the night on different continents are portrayed. Below is a brief impression of this multifaceted show.

Bat mask, Burkina Faso, before 1973. III 19733

Papua New-Guinea, Windflag with bats, Awar, 1930. Vb 9304

The exhibition associates the bat as a nocturnal animal with a negative or positive significance. About 1 000 species exist in the world. Art dedicated many objects to the bat, from Batman as a defender of good to the bat as a bringer of doom and diseases.

The demons king Kala Rahu, Bali, arond 1940. A gift from Georg Andre Schlager. IIc 16412

The night always had something ominous about it. Witches, demons, ghosts, devils and other fable creatures came to life at night. Amulets, evening prayers and other objects brought or were expected to bring protection.

The night is not only for lullabies, dreams and sleep, a natural necessity but also for sleepwalking, brooding, nightmares and insomnia. Apart from modern medicines, this issue has always concerned humans and artists.

Selection of beds and sleeping objects and amulettes for adults and children/babies

The night is also the time of nightwear and the bed in all shapes and sizes, with particular attention to babies and children. The bedroom interior, curtains, ground covers and heating materials also varied. Again, human creativity and adaptation are almost inexhaustible on all continents.

The towns and villages used to be pitch black and virtually silent at night. Only vagabonds, carriages, church bells and night guards made themselves heard. Lanterns and torches illuminated the city. Night guards and lantern lighters did their rounds in all European cities well into the nineteenth century and had their rituals.

Selection of the vast diversity of lanterns

The night was also the time of (religious) celebrations and events. Fasnacht, full moon, St Nicholas, fireworks or spiritual manifestations often occurred or started in the dark.

The setting and rising sun, the stars, the moon and dark landscapes were also depicted in art on all continents in the most distinctive ways.

Nowadays, a city at night offers a different (light and sound) spectacle. High-tech presentations of modern nightlife also address this facet.

The Diorama Polyorama Panoptique, 1850, France, with reproductions of slides (2023). A gift from Sophie Zahn-Sarasin 1950. VI 19090.00,01-03, 05-07,09-11

The Champs d ‘Élysées in Paris by night and day 

The diorama was a popular box presenting slides before the advent of the moving image and photography. A unique effect was to darken the light, giving the picture two dimensions.

The exhibition gives an impressive and vivid picture of the (artistic) experience of the night on different continents. It is a challenging subject, but the versatile presentation, the wide variety of (art) objects, and modern techniques give a good impression of the experience of an eminently international and multicultural phenomenon.

The city of Chur (Canton of Graubunden) had 12 night guards until 31 December 1887. They announced the evening guard (Abendwache, from 19.00 (sibni) and later the morning guard (Morgenwache) by singing verses. No alarm clocks existed yet! Photo: TES

The Abendwache:

I träta jezz uf d’Abedwacht,

Gott geb üs allna a guati Nacht.

Und löschan all Füür und Liacht,

Dass üs dar liabi Gott whol b’hüat.

Sibni hätts g’schlaga, das tuan ieu kund,

Gott gäb üs allna a guati Stund

The Morgenwache:

Stönd uuf im Nama Jesu Christ,

Dar helli Tag vorhanda isch

Dar helli Tag üs nia verlaat,’

Gott gäb üs allna guata Tag.

A guatta Tag, a a glückseeligi Stund:

Das bitt’i Gott vo Herzansgr