Ethnographic Museum, Part II

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Photo by Monique Ligtenberg

The Ethnographic Museum in Zurich houses thousands of objects from all over the world. How did they get there?

Written by Monique Ligtenberg (Audio will follow shortly...)

Some clues to this question can be found in the biography of the now unknown physician Dr. Conrad Kläsi. Kläsi was born in Niederurnen, Canton Glarus, in 1854. Like many of his contemporaries, he read the writings of world travelers such as Alexander von Humboldt, or Charles Darwin. And like his great role models, he had the desire to travel the world. As the son of a teacher, however, he could not afford to do so. 

In 1879, Kläsi came across a unique opportunity to satisfy his wanderlust. The Dutch colonial government was looking for doctors to serve in the Dutch colonial army in what is now Indonesia. His application was successful, and he took the next ship to Batavia (now Jakarta), where he arrived on October 9th of the same year. For the next five years he was stationed on the northwest coast of Sumatra, where the Dutch were attempting to subjugate the Sultanate of Aceh. The war lasted over 40 years and claimed thousands of lives, particularly on the indigenous side. On the Dutch side, doctors like Kläsi ensured that casualties were kept to a minimum.

Kläsi showed little interest in the background of the war. For him, it was merely a means to an end; after his service, he financed a six-month research trip through Sumatra with the money he earned as a medical officer. He brought a total of 28 boxes of stuffed animals back to Europe, along with ethnographic objects. Some of them he kept, others he gave away or sold to private societies such as the Geographic-Ethnographic Society of Zurich, which later became the Ethnographic Museum. In 1907, they bought swords, quivers, bows, and arrows, pieces of clothing as well as a so-called “magic book” from him. These objects are still part of the Ethnographic Museum’s collection.

It is unclear exactly how Kläsi got hold of these objects (there are many unsolved origin stories of ethnographic objects in Europe). Most likely, there was somehow a connection with violence. We know from other examples that the explorers were accompanied by colonial soldiers whose task was to ensure that the local population cooperated. Moreover, colonized peoples were aware of the colonial balance of power. Even if they successfully resisted to cooperate in a European research expedition, it was clear that the colonial powers would return with even more troops to enforce their goals. The explorers rarely left their research stations unarmed. 

Kläsi's story may sound unique, but it was more common in the 19th century than you might think. Each of the objects in the Ethnographic Museum has its own biography and history, which is in many cases connected to colonialism. Dozens of Swiss collaborated with colonial governments as doctors, planters, soldiers, naturalists, or merchants and brought thousands of objects back to Switzerland. There was a real "collecting mania"; whatever looked interesting or exotic was taken along.

For collectors, these objects were more than mere souvenirs. Above all, they were used to build one’sa reputation as "men of the world", or as an expert of a particular region of the world. How the objects were to be interpreted was not decided in an exchange with the cultures from which they came, but exclusively from a European perspective. Exhibited in the museum, they spoke for entire ethnic groups, showing their audience something supposedly "primordial" or "primitive". The religious, cultural, or historical significance of the objects at the place of origin did not matter.

What relevance does the history of colonial institutions like the Ethnographic Museum and colonial collecting practices have in present-day Switzerland? On the one hand, we could ask ourselves: To what extent are we still influenced by colonial stereotypes when we talk about ethnic groups in Asia, Africa, and South America? On the other hand, we should think about how we deal with such collections today: Do we want to contextualize and exhibit these objects as memorials of our colonial history? Or should we give them back to the people for whom they are important testimonies of their own history, or ensure the preservation of their own culture as ritual/ religious objects?

Monique Ligtenberg is a doctoral candidate at the Chair for History of the Modern World at ETH Zurich.

Further reading: 

Büttikofer, Johann: "On a collection of Birds made by Dr. C. Klaesi in the Highlands of Padang (W. Sumatra) during the winter 1884-85", in: Jentik, F.A. (Hg.): Notes from the Leyden Museum XI, 1887, S. 1-128.

Historischer Verein des Kanton Glarus: “Frühlingsversammlung des hist. Vereins”, in: Jahrbuch des Historischen Vereins des Kantons Glarus 23, 1887, S. XXIVf.

Erni, Heinrich: Nekrolog Konrad Kläsi, in: Schweizerische Medizinische Wochenschrift 48, 1935, S. 1152.

Schweizerisches Bundesarchiv, BAR E27#100/721#5748*, Dossier "Eintritt von schweiz. Aerzten in die niederl. Kolonialarmee (Oblt. Kläsi, Oblt. G. Glaser, Oblt. H. Erni, Oblt. A. Günther), 1879-1880".

Rebekka Habermas & Ulrike Lindner: Rückgabe - und mehr, in: Die Zeit, 12. Dezember 2018, [Zugriff: 09.07.2021].

Missbach, Antje: “The Aceh War (1873-1913) and the Influence of Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje”, in: Graf, Arndt/Schröter, Susanne/Wieringa, Edwin (Hg.): Aceh. History, Politics and Culture, Singapore : Institute of Southeast Asian Studies 2010, S. 39-62.