In his later years, Martin Bodmer’s objective was to have a permanent exhibition that offered a comprehensive overview of world literature and temporary exhibits on specific themes:
The large room in the main building was allocated to the entire corpus of Western literature. The room was split in two: on the one side, manuscripts were filed in chronological order, from the oldest to the most recent; on the other, printed documents, from woodcuts to modern printing, were arranged. In both cases, the highlight was on major authors.
The basement was set aside for the Middle and Far East. In the hallway there was a display cabinet for the papyri; there were also drawings, autographs and music scores.
The large underground passage was the realm of the sciences – on one side, medicine, botany and zoology; on the other, geology and scientific discoveries.
Temporary exhibitions were held in the small room at the back of the building.
Examples of temporary exhibitions held during Martin Bodmer’s lifetime:
• September: Medium Aevum Novum
• October (for the visit of the Geneva Reading Society and the Association of Swiss Librarians) Overview of the development of the West with a few additional examples from other cultures – 128 items displayed
• November: Medicine and music of ancient times
• February: The moon in mythology, science and literature
• March: Hölderlin (16 manuscripts and 4 first editions)
• August: Animals and plants in science, literature, art and music
• October: Natural sciences
• exhibits on music and English literature (underground exhibition area)
• manuscripts (29), printed books (38), objets d’art (16), including jars and objects in bronze and stone (main exhibition hall)
• sciences (over 60) in the underground passageway
• 20 February 1970: the Bible (36)
Since the new museum opened in 2003, there have been approximately two to three temporary exhibitions a year, either in the second basement or occasionally in the History Room in the South building.
The objective is to attract and display the treasures of private Geneva, Swiss and foreign collections (Pierre Berès, Georges Nivat, Gérard Nordmann, Steinhauslin, Charlotte Kerr Dürrenmatt, Claude Reymond, Jean Bonna, Jean-Paul Barbier Mueller, Anne-Marie Springer, Natalia Dimitrievna Solzhenitsyn) and renowned institutes (the Pushkin House of the St Petersburg Academy of Sciences, the Walser Archives, the Matenadaran Institute in Yerevan, Armenia; the Gallimard Archives, the Jung Archives). As a rule, the works on show should be in keeping with Martin Bodmer’s collection, add to it or look at it from a different angle.
Temporary exhibits also enable the Foundation to present themes that are specific to its collection but cannot be fully displayed in the permanent exhibition. They provide the opportunity to enhance the collection by borrowing from prestigious institutions like the Bibliothèque nationale de France or the British Library. This was case the for the exhibitions on Italian Renaissance, the great religions of the East and West, ancient medicine and, on a smaller scale, the exhibitions on music, opera, Dante and Rimbaud.