Navigation auf


UZH News


Collecting and Selling as a Business Model and Relationship Building

Between 1968 and 1972, the Noanamá, an indigenous group in Colombia, provided entomologist and anthropologist Borys Malkin with more than 2,200 objects from their everyday life. Malkin went on to sell these objects as sets to various museums across Europe and North America, including the Ethnographic Museum of the University of Zurich in 1969. A current workspace exhibition explores this commercial collecting practice and the relationships it creates, between the Noanamá and collector Malkin, but also with museum staff and visitors.
Noanamá-Frau beim Flechten eines Korbes
Noanamá woman weaving a basket. Collection VMZ UZH

Borys Malkin (1917–2009) was an avid traveler. As a young man, he emigrated to the US, where he studied entomology and anthropology. After being drafted and fighting for the US armed forces in World War II, he completed his studies and spent a lot of his time traveling. He adopted a working model enabled him to work while on the move. His second passion came in handy here, since he was a keen collector of insects and (later) everyday objects from indigenous groups of people.

Business relationships in Colombia

Over the course of four years, at least 2,214 objects of the Noanamá people passed through Malkin’s hands and found their way into more than a dozen museums in North America and Europe – including around 140 objects acquired by the Ethnographic Museum of the University of Zurich. The collector also created comprehensive photographic documentation on how to use the objects and shot 16 mm films showing how they were produced. Malkin was part of a network of collectors and was deeply knowledgeable about the ethnographic market. He visited the Noanamá no less than four times, since his relationship with them seemed to be flourishing – unlike with some other indigenous groups, who refused to interact with collectors and researchers. As the objects spread across various European and North American museums, a complex network developed that exists to this very day: between Malkin and the Noanamá, but also their descendants and the people dealing with the objects today.

Past encounters lead to lasting relationships

But how did the Noanamá people experience these encounters with Malkin? What prompted them to provide the collector with more than 2,200 of their objects?  Did they give the objects away for free, or did they negotiate something in return? And what do Noanamá people today have to say about these practices and the collections in museums in the West? These are some of the questions addressed in the workspace exhibition.

Malkin was a prolific letter writer, and perhaps the many letters he exchanged with his wife, who lived in Poland, will reveal more about his various encounters. Curator Maike Powroznik is also developing forms of exchange with the Noanamá, both online and on-site, to include their perspectives. “One of our main goals is to make the collection known to the descendants of the people who made the objects. We want to work together to find out more about the objects in front of us and why they’re here, which knowledge of the world they contain, and how we should deal with them in the future.”

Cooking pots and salt pans, whisks and cooking spoons, snails and coconut are some objects and foodstuffs that Borys Malkin collected around cooking at Noanamá. Collection VMZ UZH

Hands-on approach to exploring objects

Visitors can use the workstations at the entrance to the exhibition to explore the museums’ sources on the Noanamá collection, including photo slides and prints, film material, file cards and folders from the archive. The objects on display, which include drinking glasses, pottery, baskets, hunting tools, oars, jewelry and toys, are described on replicas of Malkin’s original file cards that contain his detailed notes. Maike Powroznik deliberately chose not to include any additional explanations; instead, these will be added as new insights emerge over the course of the exhibition.

For Malkin, the items represented a “complete set of objects” that covered the entire range of the Noanamá material culture – a view that is no longer shared by present-day anthropologists. This is expressed in the exhibition through various mirrors on the display cases, which break up the links between the objects while also involving the visitors. The boundaries between object and observer dissolve, and the relationships built up between different people through the objects become palpable. The representation of objects thus reflects a world view of the Noanamá that Powroznik encountered as she developed the exhibition, namely the idea of the world as a kind of rhizome, an organic network connecting everything and everyone.

Weiterführende Informationen


Ethnographic Museum
of the University of Zurich
Dr. Maike Powroznik, Curator
Phone: +41 44 634 90 20

Download Images

  • Geflochtene Gegenstände

    (JPG, 3.49 MB)

    To each set of Noanamá objects, the Polish collector Malkin added a wickerwork that had been started. Collection VMZ UZH (Image: Kathrin Leuenberger, 2022)

  • Verschiedene Körbchen (geflochten)

    (JPG, 4.30 MB)

    Woven bags and baskets, partly merchandise or to store and transport small items. Collection VMZ UZH (Image: Kathrin Leuenberger, 2022)

  • Trinkgefässe rund um das alkoholische Getränk huarapo (vergorener Zuckerrohrsaft)

    (JPG, 4.22 MB)

    On ceremonial occasions, the alcoholic beverage huarapo, fermented sugar cane juice, was drunk. Various objects in the collection provide evidence of these gatherings. Collection VMZ UZH (Image: Kathrin Leuenberger, 2022)

  • Gegenstände vom und für Kinder: Puppen, Paddel oder Kreisel

    (JPG, 3.69 MB)

    With these dolls, paddles or spinning tops - made by parents or self-made - children played and learned social values and practical knowledge. Collection VMZ UZH (Image: Kathrin Leuenberger, 2022)

  • Eine Frau spült Trinkschalen am Fluss

    (JPG, 4.10 MB)

    A woman washes drinking bowls at the river. Collection VMZ UZH (Image: Borys Malkin, 1968–72)

  • Eine Frau verziert das Gesicht eines Mädchens.

    (JPG, 4.41 MB)

    A woman decorates the face of a girl. Collection VMZ UZH (Image: Borys Malkin, 1968/69)

  • Flechtarbeit

    (JPG, 4.35 MB)

    The Noanamá Rana weaves a fire fan. Collector Borys Malkin recorded the creation of various objects step by step. Collection VMZ UZH (Image: Borys Malkin, 1969)