THE ULSTER ARCHIVES


Clinging to the southern slopes of the Lepontine Alps, Küsendorf is a village of nearly 2,000 people in Ticino, the southernmost canton (or state) in Switzerland. Known for its scenic views and local brand of Swiss cheese, Küsendorf is the home of the Ulster Archives, the finest private collection of documents and antiquities in the world.

Built as a temporary haven for Austrian philanthropist Conrad Ulster, it eventually became his permanent residence. During the early-1930s, Ulster, an avid collector of rare artifacts, sensed the political instability in his country and realized there was a good chance that his prized library would be seized by the Nazis. To protect himself and his books, he smuggled his collection across the Swiss border in railcars, hidden under thin layers of brown coal, and hid from public view until after World War II. He died in 1964 but expressed his thanks to the people of Switzerland by donating his estate to his adopted hometown—provided that they keep his collection intact and accessible to the world’s best academic minds. Today, the Ulster Archives is considered the most extensive private collection of documents and antiquities in the world.

Unlike most private collections, the main goal of the Archives isn’t to hoard artifacts. Instead, it strives to bridge the ever-growing schism that exists between scholars and connoisseurs. Typical big-city museums display 15 percent of their accumulated artifacts, meaning 85 percent of the world’s finest relics are currently off-limits to the public. That number climbs even higher, closer to 90 percent, when personal collections are factored in. Thankfully, the Ulster Foundation has vowed to correct the problem. Ever since the Archives opened in the mid-1960s, it has promoted the radical concept of sharing. In order to gain admittance to the facility, a visitor has to bring something of value—such as an ancient object or unpublished research that might be useful to others. Whatever it is, it has to be approved in advance by the Archives’ staff. If for some reason they deem it unworthy, then admission to the facility is denied until a suitable replacement can be found. It is their way to encourage sharing.

For the past decade, the Archives have been run by Conrad’s grandson, Petr Ulster.