The cow, marmot, ibex and St Bernhard belong to Switzerland almost as much as the white cross. The new exhibition entitled “swiss bestiary” highlights the link between humans and these four animals, delves into legends and customs, and transforms the exhibition rooms into meadows and mountain valleys.

Switzerland does not have an official national animal. But if you were to try to come up with one, there would probably be four candidates: the cow, the marmot, the ibex and the St Bernard. The new “swiss bestiary” family exhibition in the National Museum Zurich is dedicated to this quartet.

Since time immemorial, humans have regarded animals as more than just suppliers of food. They symbolise human traits, represent a region or are found on family crests. Legends and stories have been created about them, such as that about marmots which transported hay using a sophisticated technique. One animal would lie on its back like a “hay cart” and allow itself to be loaded up. The other animals would then drag it by the tail to their winter quarters. The author of this legend was the Roman scholar Pliny (23–79 AD), who believed he had observed this and spread news of it in his “Naturalis historia”. It was not until the end of the 18th century that doubts first arose. Nevertheless, the story is still told today. Albeit with a wink.

The legends about Barry, the fabled St Bernard, have endured to the present day. This dog – born in 1800 in the hospice at the top of the Great St Bernard Pass and working in the rescue service until 1812 – is said to have rescued a total of 40 people from the snow. He made this breed famous as an avalanche rescue dog and strengthened Switzerland’s appeal abroad as a tourist destination. Some of the incredible stories about Barry are not based on historical facts. Despite that, with the typical barrel of brandy around his neck, he has become “Switzerland’s national dog”. The barrel has become so etched into people’s minds that it is impossible to imagine it not there – even though it is a pure fabrication.

Similarly inseparable are Switzerland and its cows. Without cows there would be no milk, no chocolate and no cheese. These three things are seen as the embodiment of quality Swiss products and are exported successfully throughout the world. And the ibex, the undisputed king of the mountains, is a YouTube star enticing hikers and skiers to the mountains of Grisons.

The cow, marmot, ibex and St Bernard shape our everyday lives, are part of our history and impact our economy. Whether as a tourist magnet or as a raw material supplier, whether as a heraldic animal or as the main figure in a children’s book, these four animals belong to Switzerland like the white cross on its red background. “swiss bestiary”: Cow, marmot, alpine ibex and St Bernard dog” is an exhibition for all the family. While little ones learn about the animals through play, adults can immerse themselves in customs, economic facts or historical sources.