Down the Hobbit hole in Switzerland

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Published: December 21, 2014 12:14:37 AM

Tolkien fans can visit the world’s first Middle-earth museum, as long as they can stoop

UNTIL LAST year, Jenins, about an hour’s drive south-east of Zurich, seemed like any other small town in Switzerland’s verdantly lush Bundner Herrschaft wine-growing region, with sloping vineyards heavy with pinot noir grapes. These days, though, there is one very noticeable new addition.

At the end of Verduonig, a quiet residential street, a small wooden sign that announced ‘museum’ was the only indication of the anomaly to come: a grapevine-covered stone and red-brick structure that seemed to jut from the earth like a large mound, with a round, green oak door with a brass knob, and circular windows that looked on to a small garden of rose bushes.

As any fan of JRR Tolkien would recognise, it was a Hobbit hole. The remarkable structure serves as the striking entrance to the Greisinger Museum, the world’s first museum dedicated to Tolkien’s fictional universe, Middle-earth.

Opened in October 2013, the museum has seen about 3,000 visitors so far, with that number expected to rise with this month’s release of the final installment of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. The museum is the vision of Bernd Greisinger, a former fund manager, who has amassed what is considered by many Tolkien experts to be the world’s largest trove of Middle-earth collectibles, with 3,500 books and 600 artworks, including paintings and drawings by noted Tolkien artists Douglas Beekman, Cor Blok and Alan Lee.

“It’s the only museum whose sole aim is the promotion of Tolkien, Tolkien’s works and subsequent adaptations,” says Shaun Gunner, chairman of the British-based fan club, the Tolkien Society. “There is an unrivalled collection of rare books and collectibles.”

The Greisinger Museum is no ordinary museum, but one teeming with eccentricities, as it descends into a warren of unusual rooms two levels underground. For starters, the Hobbit hole’s archways are only 5ft high. Visitors can also only view the collection through one of the two-hour guided tours, many of which are held by costumed guides, Greisinger included, in German, French or Italian.

Perhaps the kookiest—and most wondrous—aspect of the 36,000-sq-ft museum is that each of the additional 11 rooms besides the three-room Hobbit hole represents a different location in Tolkien’s fantasy world. Tours start in the Hobbit hole, whose furnishings include rustic hand-carved wooden chairs scattered around a fireplace and a large writing desk piled with maps of Middle-earth. “We want to give people the feeling that they’re in the right place, what it feels like to be inside a Hobbit hole,” Greisinger says.

A number of collectibles are also in evidence, most notably a chandelier from Tolkien’s seaside bungalow in Poole, England, and the 1969 Ken Rudolph calendar, the first ever Tolkien fan art calendar, published with signed artwork by the Tolkien illustrator Tim Kirk.

But the Hobbit hole represents a mere scratching of the surface—literally—of the experiential museum. Its subsequent rooms are all intricately designed and unexpectedly unorthodox in shape and size: the Gondor room, spanning two floors with a spiral staircase, celebrates the great Middle-earth kingdom, with white columned pillars. A 13-ft-tall installation of a fearsome Balrog creature dominates the Moria room.

On my visit, Greisinger and I pored over a few of the 30 rare books on display, pausing to examine an inscription by Tolkien to his close friend Elaine Griffiths in an extremely rare first impression of a first edition of The Lord of the Rings.

It is Greisinger’s fascination for Tolkien’s books that feeds his art collection.

“Our work is to find originals of the different illustrations in the books,” he says. While Greisinger acknowledges the Peter Jackson films with memorabilia that includes a smattering of props from the movies and a script of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, he insists the films are not a focus of his museum.

“The Peter Jackson films are just one interpretation of Tolkien’s world,” he says. “My goal is to have visitors understand more of Tolkien’s world and all that is connected to it.”

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