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From Wooden Combs to the Lives of the Saamaka Marron in Suriname

Stone tools from New Guinea, ritual headdress from Suriname and a Thai spirit house – these and many more exhibits feature in the Ethnographic Museum’s latest exhibition. The objects were collected by mountaineer Heinrich Harrer on his expeditions in the 1960s. They provide visitors with new insights into indigenous societies as well as the explorer himself.


Trailer to the exhibition "Encountering – Retracing – Mapping. The Expedition Collections of Heinrich Harrer".

  In Switzerland, the name Heinrich Harrer (1912–2006) is generally associated with the Hollywood film Seven Years in Tibet and the first ascent of the north face of the Eiger mountain. However, it is less known that the Austrian geographer and mountaineer travelled to countless other regions, including Western New Guinea, the Xingu region in Brazil, Suriname, French Guiana as well as several countries across the Asian continent.

Present-day significance of ethnographic expedition collections

In 1973, Harrer donated the collections that he built up during these expeditions – totaling over 1,500 artefacts – to the Ethnographic Museum at the University of Zurich, along with his Tibet collection. A new exhibition is now making selected items from these collections available to the public. On the occasion of the 2018 European Year of Cultural Heritage, museum director Mareile Flitsch sees this as “an opportunity to reflect on the present-day significance of such ethnographic collections and point out possibilities on how they can be dealt with in a contemporary, scientific way.”

Objects storing information

When approached through specific research questions, the items reveal themselves as a trove of stories and details about far-away countries, indigenous societies and ways of living. “They contain information about artisanal skills, social systems and worldviews as well as traces of local history and intercultural encounters,” says Maike Powroznik, the exhibition’s curator. At the same time, the objects and their historical context, but also the circumstances in which they changed hands, shed light on aspects of the collector Heinrich Harrer, making it possible to critically reflect on his persona.

From mountaineer to explorer

Until the 1940s Harrer’s main interests were sport and mountaineering. His ambitions coincided with a time in which the emerging National Socialism was keen to exploit outstanding mountaineering feats for its own purposes. Young Harrer’s proximity to Nazi ideology is at least in part an expression of the ambivalent relationship between politics and sport in that time. However, a seven-year stay in the Tibetan Plateau changed his views: “Unlike in the past, it wasn’t only the mountains but also the curiosity about far-away countries and the lives of foreign people that drove me to go travelling again,” he later wrote in his autobiography.

Harrer, the TV anthropologist

Before his expedition to Western New Guinea in 1962, Harrer entered into a contract with Hessischer Rundfunk broadcasting company for a television series. The program was called “Heinrich Harrer berichtet” (Heinrich Harrer reports), which in the following years became a fixture on German television. Harrer now began to systematically collect objects during his travels, complementing them with photographs, drawings, film recordings and entries in his diary. He was often accompanied by a cameraman.

Enabling encounters

The exhibition in the Ethnographic Museum takes a two-part approach to the collections built up by Harrer during this time. The first part presents selected ethnographic items from five expeditions in the 1960s and was developed in cooperation with social and cultural anthropology students. Taking individual objects or groups of objects as a starting point, the students researched concrete questions and in this way show different possible approaches to the objects. “We also want to get visitors to have their own thoughts, write them down on file cards, and thus get them involved in reflecting on the collections,” explains Powroznik. This participatory approach is also aimed at younger visitors, for whom two students developed special discovery stations.

Following traces

The second part of the exhibition presents a comprehensive collection from Suriname in its entirety. Harrer obtained the collection in 1966 from Saamaka Marron Peoples, descendants of escaped African slaves who worked on the plantations of Dutch colonialists. Many of them managed to escape from the end of the 17th century onwards and then fled deep inside the country, where they were able to establish a new society. Traces of their dramatic history as well as of their day-to-day material lives are both evident in the collection. “We follow some of these traces right up to the present day,” says Powroznik. “We thus ask what significance these objects hold from today’s perspective: For us, but also for the Saamaka themselves.”


Weiterführende Informationen


Ethnographic Museum at the University of Zurich


Dr. Maike Powroznik (expeditions)

Phone: +41 44 634 90 20



Dr. Martina Wernsdörfer (Tibet)

Phone: +41 44 634 90 21