Tibet – More Than Religion and Politics

Rethinking the usual Western image of a Tibet considered as traditional and opening up new approaches – this is what the Ethnographic Museum at the University of Zurich wants to achieve with its current exhibition. It displays artifacts collected by mountaineers Peter Aufschnaiter and Heinrich Harrer in Lhasa in the 1940s – a time marked by transition and a political situation in Tibet which became increasingly tense.

In 1939, two Austrian climbers – the agronomist Peter Aufschnaiter and the geographer Heinrich Harrer – set off for the eight thousand meter high Nanga Parbat in Kashmir. On their way back, World War II broke out and they were interned by the British Army. Five years later, they managed to escape over the Himalayas and into Tibet, eventually reaching and settling in Lhasa.


From the heights of Nanga Parbat to everyday life in Lhasa

In Lhasa, Aufschnaiter worked for the Tibetan government, drawing two city maps, building irrigation systems and trying out new seeds in agriculture. He also mapped the landscape, recorded climatic measurements and took an interest in the local farming, flora and fauna as well as archeology. Harrer supported him, but also had his own interests – taking part in social events, organizing sporting activities and documenting the daily life in the city.


When the communist government of China took control of Tibet, Aufschnaiter and Harrer had to leave. They left Lhasa at the end of 1950, each with a collection of ethnographic and ritual objects, as well as numerous photos, maps, drawings, diaries and notebooks amounting to hundreds of pages. Harrer returned to Europe, travelling from there around the whole world. He made a name for himself with public-speaking engagements and publications. Aufschnaiter, on the other hand, only went as far as Nepal, where he lived and worked until his death in 1973.


Two collections, one focus

In the 1970s, Harrer’s, and later also Aufschnaiter’s, Tibet collections were given to the Ethnographic Museum at the University of Zurich. The current exhibition at the museum establishes for the first time links between the two collections. The juxtaposition of exhibits creates a varied and deep picture of Tibet which invites us to rethink our stereotypes. “The exhibits bring the visitors closer to the people who originally made them and used them,” explains curator Martina Wernsdörfer. Items such as steel-flint kits, a slingshot, coins and garments give a glimpse into daily life in 1940s Tibet, showcase local skills and reveal a society on the brink of change.


Western image of Tibet

The first part of the exhibition tackles the effect of Harrer’s book Seven Years in Tibet in the broader context of conventional views of Tibet. Ever since the reports brought back by the first European travellers in the 17th century, the country has held a mystical fascination for westerners. In the difficult war and post-war years in Europe, this fascination intensified and the political turmoil on the roof of the world increasing since 1950 brought it to the attention of the world again. The European mental image of Tibet was of a land frozen in time, mysterious, traditional and inaccessible.


Appropriation, adaptation or ideological conviction?

A second part of the exhibition tackles the controversial subject of Harrer and Aufschnaiter’s links with national-socialism. In the pre-war years, mountain-climbing did not just remain a personal passion, but gained mass admiration and was exploited for political purposes. This is illustrated by examples such as the first successful ascent of the north face of the Eiger in 1938 by a German-Austrian team including Harrer, which was portrayed in the German press as a victory for “Greater Germany”, and the subsequent expedition to Nanga Parbat in 1939 led by Aufschnaiter. Material from several archives open windows to reflect on some of the question marks – including open questions in the lives of Harrer and Aufschnaiter.


Collecting and documenting in a time of change

The third part of the exhibition in the main room focuses on the objects themselves as well as the act of collecting and documenting. By presenting the two ethnographic legacies alongside each other, the similarities and the differences become evident – and the individual viewpoints and characters of the two men can be recognized. Above all, however, the exhibition reveals the people behind the objects, the people Harrer and Aufschnaiter encountered in Lhasa – their contemporaries. “The objects are like pieces of a mosaic connecting in different ways,” says Martina Wernsdörfer. “New dimensions emerge from the connections between the objects that take us beyond Harrer and Aufschnaiter, but also beyond the classic images of Tibet, thus inviting us to explore and form our own perceptions of the region and its people.”


Mapping – Retracing – Encountering. The Tibet Collections of Heinrich Harrer and Peter Aufschnaiter

Ethnographic Museum at the University of Zurich
28 October 2018 to 8 September 2019, free of charge

The current exhibition complements the exhibition that opened in July 2018, Encountering – Retracing – Mapping. The Expedition Collections of Heinrich Harrer.

Accompanying publication for the two exhibitions
Encountering – Retracing – Mapping. The Ethnographic Legacy of Heinrich Harrer and Peter Aufschnaiter. Mareile Flitsch, Maike Powroznik, Martina Wernsdörfer, Ethnographic Museum of the University of Zurich (Ed.), Stuttgart and Zurich, 2018.