Plattenstrasse 10

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Photo by Monique Ligtenberg

The demolition of the old Plattengarten inn buried the traces of a racist past that linger to this day.

Written by Sally Schonfeldt; read by Michèle Breu & Patrick Balaraj Yogarajan

It may not appear so, yet this is the plot where the old Plattengarten inn once stood, at Plattenstrasse 10. Some of the first ethnological expositions, or “Human Zoos”, took place on its stages in the 19th century. In these expositions, living people from non-European countries were presented to an audience. Although Plattengarten was one of the first places to host such expositions in Switzerland, it followed a Europe-wide trend that was strongly associated with the conquests of the European colonial powers. 

Initially, only individuals categorized as “exotic” were held in captivity and publicly displayed. Following popular demand, the ethnological expositions quickly took on larger proportions throughout Europe, so that eventually entire villages and groups were abducted and presented like animals in a zoo. These shows had little to do with the lives of the people on display. Rather, they served the colonial fantasies and racist ideas of a European audience. An audience that wanted to assure itself of its own supposed superiority by distinguishing itself from a non-European “other”. 

This was also the case with one of the first ethnological expositions at Plattengarten. In 1882, eleven members of the Kawesqar were put on display there. Against their will, they were abducted from their homeland, Tierra del Fuego in the southern part of Chilean Patagonia, and advertised in Zurich as “Die Wilden von den Feuerlandinseln” (“The Savages of Tierra del Fuego”). While in Zurich, they were treated like prisoners; they were not allowed to move freely and lived under precarious conditions. So precarious in fact, that five of the eleven Kawesqar died in Zurich. 

The remains of the Kawesqar were kept and forgotten at the Anthropological Institute of the University of Zurich, until they were discovered by the author Rea Brändle during her research. In the early 2000s, Chilean historian Christian Báez examined the remains at the Anthropological institute on behalf of the Kawesqar descendants, whom they were finally returned to in 2010.*

Zurich was a well-established venue for ethnological expositions, which were popular events at the time. With the demolition of the inn, the traces of this racist past were buried. However, coming to terms with this historical legacy is invaluable, as Eurocentric feelings of white ethnic superiority persist in our society to this day. 

* An earlier version of this text (and the audio guide) read as: Their skeletons had been stored and forgotten in the Anthropolgical Institute of the University of Zurich until Chilean historian Christian Báez A. discovered them in 2002. The remains of the Kewasqar were finally returned to their descendants in 2010.  

Sally Schonfeldt is a freelance artist, who explores how history is produced and socially anchored. In doing so, she inquires into who determines history and memory. She uses historiography to question the method of knowledge production in relation to postcolonial discourse and the position of women in history, whereby continually challenging Eurocentric historiography. Schonfeldt is also pursuing a PhD in Indigenous Studies at the Australian National University, where she is conducting research on Indigenous Australian remains in Swiss collections.

Further reading:

Brändle, Rea: Wildfremd, hautnah. Zürcher Völkerschauen und ihre Schauplätze 1835–1964, 2013.

Karin Fuchs, Manuel Menrath, Heinz Nauer, Sabine Ziegler ; Claudio Caduff: Fremde Bilder.koloniale Spuren in der Schweiz : eine Unterrichtshilfe für Lehrpersonen, 2011.

Staehelin, Balthasar & Zoo Basel, 1993. Völkerschauen im Zoologischen Garten Basel : 1879-1935, Basel: Basler Afrika Bibliographien.

Minder, Patrick: Human Zoos in Switzerland in: Human Zoos. Science and spectacle in the age of colonial empires, edited by Blanchard, P. et al., Liverpool University Press, Liverpool, s.328-340, 2008.