The Emergence of Scientific Collections on Africa in Swiss Ethnographic Museums from 1890. Knowledge and ignorance of the museum as a colonial archive

This study investigates the history of African material heritage in Swiss museum collections. It is mostly interested in the first decades after the foundation of the first cultural history museums in Switzerland from around 1890. With the founding of these institutions, a new understanding of cultural heritage culminated and the transformation of curiosities into scientific research materials came to its conclusion. Simultaneously, the ways in which cultural heritage was preserved, catalogued, researched, or displayed changed fundamentally.

African material heritage and the concomitant scientification of Africa can be found in a great variety of different collecting institutions such as natural or cultural history museums, botanical gardens, libraries, public archives and so forth. The collected materials were scattered over many different institutions although it was not unusual that they were collected simultaneously in the field. However, I have an extensive focus on so-called ethnographic collections compiled in colonial Africa around 1900 and, in line with this, the African heritage collections of different Swiss ethnographic museums were systematically examined.

The research explores the question of the provenance of African material heritage in Swiss ethnographic museums and shows that and how, despite a systematic lack of information, colonial moments of acquisition can be reconstructed. I also show how the scientification of African heritage in museums results in an alienation of its meanings and I prove that the collections and artifacts under investigation are a unique source for researching a specific Swiss colonial history. 

Supervisor:  Prof. Dr. Julia Tischler
Co-Supervisor: Prof. Ciraij Rassool (University of the Western Cape) 


Samuel Bachmann graduated with a BA degree in philosophy and ethnology and with an interdisciplinary MA degree in European studies at the Institute for European Global Studies, both at the University of Basel. During his studies, he focused on global history, heritage, and museum studies, which led to a master’s thesis in political science and private law about “Der Schutz des kulturellen Erbes Europas. Internationale Kulturerbepolitik und die Rolle der Europäischen Union». Since 2006, he held various positions in different historical and ethnographic museums in Switzerland. Among others, he was scientific assistant in the African collections department and director’s assistant at Museum der Kulturen Basel. Between 2015 and 2017, he worked as exhibition curator at the Historical Museum of Basel, where he co-curated the two temporary exhibitions «Wirk.Stoffe” and “Aufgetaucht”. Since 2017, Samuel Bachmann is the curator for the ethnographic collections from Africa at Bernisches Historisches Museum.

Portrait von Samuel Bachmann

Samuel Bachman 
PhD Candidate Center for African Studies 
Rheinsprung 21
4051 Basel

Bernisches Historisches Museum
Kurator Ethnografie   
Sammlung Afrika
Helvetiaplatz 5, Postfach 149
CH-3000 Bern 6   
Telefon +41 31 350 77 46
Fax +41 31 350 77 99