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Ethnographic Museum


The collection of the Ethnographic Museum at the University of Zürich originates from the collection of the Ethnographic Society of Zürich, founded in 1888. The society’s aim was to create and develop an ethnographic collection to promote theoretical and practical ethnological studies. A study collection was created to address primary and middle schools in Zürich as well as “commercial circles”, meaning merchants who travelled to colonial territories.

This marks the beginning of the history of what would become the Ethnographic Museum, a history initially dominated by men. A first exhibition of the collection was opened on 1 June 1889 in the rotunda of the former stock exchange building and presented about 500 objects from five collectors. Zoologist Conrad Keller (1848-1930) provided his collection from Madagascar, which he had acquired during an expedition to eastern Africa funded by the federal government in 1886. Linguist and ethnologist Otto Stoll (1849-1922) supplied his collection from Guatemala. Hans Schinz (1858-1941), a botanist and later founder of systematic botany and director of the botanical garden in Zürich, provided the collection he had acquired when he accompanied German colonialist Adolf Lüderitz on an expedition from 1884 to 1886 to the German colony of German South West Africa. The history of this particular collection was the topic of the exhibition “Man muss eben alles sammeln” (“One has to collect everything”), curated by Gitte Beckmann and her colleagues in 2012. The collection of the Zürich astronomer Johann Caspar Horner (1774-1834), who had been a member of the circumnavigation led by the Danish captain A. J. von Krusenstern in 1803-1806, which had been acquired from the Antiquarian Society. In addition, the collection of the missionary Gottlieb Spillmann (1834-1911), who had been working for the Basler Mission in Calicut in south India, was exhibited.

The first director of the Zürich Ethnographic Collection was Otto Stoll (from 1889 to 1899). He had worked as a doctor in Guatemala for five years, where he began to study pre-Columbian and contemporary Mayan culture. In 1883 he returned to Switzerland and wrote his habilitation dissertation on “The Ethnography of the Republic of Guatemala”. In 1884 he became adjunct professor of ethnography and anthropology at the University of Zürich and, in 1895, full professor of geography.

In autumn 1897 the Geographic Society of Zürich was founded and, in 1899, it merged with the Ethnographic Society to form the Geographic-Ethnographic Society of Zürich (GEGZ). Today the society is named “Geographie Alumni”. That same year Rudolf Martin (1864-1921) was elected as director of the collection (1899-1909). The election of a physical anthropologist attested to the tendency in academia at the time to establish autonomous disciplines. The notion of all-encompassing professorships combining, for example, geography, ethnography and physical anthropology in one discipline started to crumble at the end of the 19th century. Each discipline aspired to attain an independent rank in the academic world. Rudolf Martin, who had graduated in philosophy, crossed over to the sciences and qualified as a professor of physical anthropology at the University of Zürich in 1891. In 1899 he convinced the university to establish an institute for physical anthropology and was elected as its professor. His 1914 “Lehrbuch der Anthropologie” (“Anthropology Textbook”) was a standard reference work on physical anthropology and racial anatomy at that time. Rudolf Martin’s role in racial research has been studied by historians such as Pascal Germann and Rea Brändli.

In 1909, Hans Jakob Wehrli (1871-1941), who was a fully trained anthropologist, became the first director of the collection (1909-1941). Scarcity of space in the following years led to the offer to donate the collection to the Canton of Zürich, on the condition that it would remain a study collection and would be housed in an appropriate facility. On 13 December 1913 the Council of the Canton of Zürich accepted the proposal. Hans Wehrli, as professor for “geography including ethnography and economic geography” was responsible for the “Ethnographic Collection of the University”, too. It took two and a half years to make an inventory of the various ethnographica that had been stored in different locations up to that point. In December 1916, Wehrli and his voluntary helpers opened the collection to the public for the first time.

In addition to his main function of teaching geography, Wehrli was interested in the anthropology of religion, especially of India, and his collecting activities focused on that area. In order to acquire adequate teaching material, he purchased artisanal and religious artefacts during an expedition to India that he made in 1926/1927 with publisher Martin Hürlimann, and commissioned the creation of marble statues in Jaipur for the collection in Zürich. With the help of these objects he introduced students and the public to Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. In 1940, at the end of his long tenure, he succeeded in acquiring a large part of Han Coray’s collection of African objects, with the help of his longstanding scientific assistant Elsy Leuzinger (1910-2010), who later became director of the Rietberg Museum in Zürich.

As Wehrli’s successor, the botanist and anthropologist Alfred Steinmann (1892-1974; director 1941-1963) developed the Indonesian collection and laid the foundation for a systematic collection of textiles. During his tenure, the collection of Alfred Ilg (1854-1916), who had lived and worked at the court of the Ethiopian Emperor Menilek II for 26 years, was gifted to the collection. Steinmann established contacts with museums in different parts of the world and in 1955 the collection became a member of the “International Commission of Museums” (ICOM).

After Steinmann’s retirement in 1963, his successor Karl H. Henking (1923-2005; director 1963-1990) advocated for the creation of a chair of anthropology and, due to the growing public interest in the collection, for the study collection to be transformed into a public university museum. The philosophical faculty complied with his request in 1970. In the summer of 1971, the Ethnological Seminar began to operate under the leadership of its new professor, Lorenz G. Löffler. Karl Henking was then able to open the Ethnographic Museum to the public on 2 May 1972 in the University of Zürich’s main building.

With the support of its newly-appointed curators and service staff the museum was able to offer a varied programme to the public, with special exhibitions, student exhibitions and visiting exhibitions. From 1976 on, the university’s new exhibition service provided support with creative and technical solutions. The museum also contributed to the university’s curriculum with courses in the anthropology of religion, the anthropology of art, ergology and technology, ethnohistory and museology, and with practical student projects. In the mid-’70s, education of teachers became a new focus, as well as further pedagogical activities at the museum.

Soon after the opening, the university’s main building location proved unsuitable. The Canton found a better facility at the old botanical garden, after the Botanical Institute had moved to a new and larger botanical garden. After two years of renovation and construction, the museum moved to its new location in summer 1979 and officially opened on 31 October 1980.

In October 1990 Karl Henking retired after 27 years of service and a year later Michael Oppitz (*1943; director 1990-2008) became his successor, now with the joint responsibilities of full professor and museum director.

Michael Oppitz had previously done research among the Magar in Nepal, where he studied systems of kinship. His film “Shamans of the Blind Country” earned him worldwide renown and his book “Notwendige Beziehungen” (“Necessary Relations”) established French structuralism in German-speaking anthropology. The study of visual sources was a focus of Oppitz’s work and he established a department for visual anthropology at the museum. His photographic documentation of shamans in the Himalayas expanded the museum’s systematic photographic collection.

After his retirement in January 2008 Mareile Flitsch was appointed to the University of Zürich and in the same year elected as the first female director of the Ethnographic Museum. Mareile Flitsch (*1960) is an anthropologist with a focus on China and practical knowledge. Her directorship has introduced a new approach to research on objects to the museum. “On Human Skill”, the title of her inaugural lecture, set the tone for her work at the museum. The anthropology of technology, the study of specific artisanal and social skills, focuses on what humans are able to do and how objects attest to these skills. The study of skills allows us to marvel at people’s accomplishments but also implies careful interaction with the artefacts that embody and store that knowledge. Accordingly, the Ethnographic Museum attaches great importance to the custody of the objects for the long term. This is also reflected in the former study collection recently being designated a World Cultural Heritage Collection.

Mareile Flitsch has established systematic archives in the museum besides the object collection, such as a photography and film archive, classical paper archives and a newly-established sound archive, that are the pillars of today’s museum work. A timely orientation of the museum towards an accounting of the past and collaborative research with members of the objects’ societies of origin, as well as the conservation of cultures of knowledge is now reflected in the research, curation, teaching and public outreach activities of the members of the museum.