"Accumulating an immense global mosaic of the life of as many inhabitants on this planet as possible—I have to admit that’s a pretty ambitious goal that we’ve set for ourselves and our collection.… Human beings are the focal point of the collection. What makes us human? What do people wish and hope for, what do they dream about? We are intrigued by the fact that, since 1839, there has been a medium capable of recording the history of humankind in meaningful and extremely concentrated images. Our store of photographs is useful to a wide variety of university disciplines, and it allows entirely different kinds of museums to collaborate." —Peter Herzog (Oral history, 07.07.2016, 24.11.2016)

The order that Ruth and Peter Herzog devised for their 'encyclopedia of life' (Martin Heller, 1989) does not reflect the classical canon of photography, but instead reveals their reservations regarding scientific classification and its attendant categorization. The Herzogs have bundled sections of their collection into 12 chapters, based on subject matter or geography. The result is an alternative panorama of world history.

The 12 chapters have been retained in cataloging and organizing the holdings of the Kabinett. Thus, in the online collection, the chapters are listed from A to L. Furthermore, the photographs and their location within the order established by Ruth and Peter Herzog are clearly identified by number. Each chapter is introduced by a short passage excerpted from conversations with Peter Herzog; this oral history, in progress since 2016, contributes substantially to the collection.


"Italy, the Vatican, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, all that belonged to the repertoire of educational journeys through Europe. And biblical history, too, when people traveled on to Palestine or Bethlehem. The exotic appeal of foreign cultures had a lot to do with it. Being able to take educational trips like that also meant that you belonged to the social elite. Tourists bought photographs in those days as souvenirs and also to prove they had been on those trips." —Peter Herzog (Oral history, 16.02.2007)

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America, Asia, Australia, New Zealand, Pacific Islands

"There has always been globalization in terms of photography. It’s not a new development. Large-scale trading always meant global trade, and long before the word ‘globalization’ was introduced. Swiss merchants also traveled to Asia and Africa. They established an international trade network, using raw materials and cheap labor and driven by the fascination and pioneering spirit of opening up new continents, and, of course, by the prospect of phenomenal gains." —Peter Herzog (Oral history, 24.11.2016)

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"Italy was the destination in those days and that’s reflected in our collection.… We organized an exhibition [360°, 39 Pictures of the Arch of Constantine 1849–1910, 2002] at the Istituto Svizzero in Rome with Dieter Bachmann, who was the director at the time. The pictures of the Arch of Constantine that we selected from our collection all look the same at first. But far from it. Each photograph is different: different photographer, different exposure time, different technique, different angle, different background." —Peter Herzog (Oral history, 24.11.2016)

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Africa, Asia Minor, Southern Europe

"One of the questions we asked ourselves while collecting was: How and when did people start acting as if the world was there to be conquered? And how did they do it? Traveling to China or Africa in the 19th century was equivalent to the idea of going to Mars today.… It’s fascinating to see how fast the world pictured in the historical photo albums is disappearing." —Peter Herzog (Oral history, 07.06.2016, 24.11.2016)

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France, England, Benelux, Scandinavia, Eastern Europe

"I spent a lot of time in three countries in particular—Italy, France, and England. I’ve traveled around in them quite a bit and I still enjoy being there.… Actually, London more so than Paris. I feel more at home with the British mentality. How did people live in Germany, Italy, England, or Switzerland? How do people live in general? Photographs can give us clues." —Peter Herzog (Oral history, 24.11.2016)

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Germany, Austria, Switzerland

"The first photographs that show Swiss motifs were taken by people from abroad, from France, England, and elsewhere, who traveled through Switzerland. At first, the Swiss … couldn’t understand how visitors could be so excited about the mountains, how they could romanticize everything—the so-called alpenglow, the glacial lakes. All they saw were the sparse Alpine pastures. The cliché of Switzerland, as we know it today, was invented by those first tourists; it’s an incredibly selective, rose-colored view of reality. A lot of people in Switzerland actually still cultivate that image." —Peter Herzog (Oral history, 09.07.2018)

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Art, Architecture, Theater, Documentation

"Members of the bourgeoisie weren’t the only ones who bought photographs and reproductions of artworks as souvenirs of their journeys. Scholars did too. It was a source of inspiration to be able to see something in photographs that they couldn’t see in person.… A lot of people, like art historians, used it to jog their memories, for instance, when they gave lectures. A famous example in Basel of somebody who collected photography and used it in his lectures was the Swiss historian of art and culture Jakob Burckhardt." —Peter Herzog (Oral history, 26.02.2017)

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Industry, Transportation, Military, Work, Sport, Leisure, Construction

"The consequences of war are important, what wars mean for the civilian population, the misery they cause. This is exemplified in various albums, for instance, those about the First or Second World War. Why war here?" —Peter Herzog (Oral history, 07.06.2016)

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"One of the things that makes collecting photography so interesting is that there are still countless undiscovered stashes of photographs or bodies of work." —Peter Herzog (Fotogeschichte no.145, 2017)

"Photographs are always about history and storytelling. That means that a specific oeuvre consists not only of records and aesthetic highlights, but also of marginalia, for example, a photographer’s diary." —Peter Herzog (Oral history, 24.11.2016)

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Personal Selection Ruth and Peter Herzog

"We bought our 'first' photograph at the Bürkliplatz, where there’s an open-air flea market every Saturday. It was the first Saturday in May 1974, around nine or ten o’clock in the morning. Our background knowledge doesn’t come from books. We were lucky in that we were able to see a lot of collections, to meet people and acquire pictures that you can’t find in Switzerland.… We knew people like Helmut Gernsheim, who wrote classic reference works. They were committed collectors, with an extraordinary store of knowledge in the field of photography, and they knew how to pass it on to others." —Peter Herzog (Oral history, 24.11.2016, 16.02.2017)

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Portraits, Family Albums

"Only after studying thousands of family albums, thousands of pictures, did we realize how very important they are. You can’t really acquire insight if you just look at the work of the big names in the field or leaf through a few photo albums.… A lot of albums start by introducing the main protagonists, the family members, and those closest to them. That’s followed, like a film, by memorable ‘events’: from the cradle to the grave, everything that’s part of a human life." —Peter Herzog (Oral history, 24.11.2016, 09.07.2018)

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Nature, Animals, Plants

"Given the complexity of the world, we keep asking ourselves: how can photography capture it? It is important for scientists to be able to study changes, sometimes even microscopic ones, for example, in a series of photographs of plants." —Peter Herzog (Oral history, 24.11.2016)

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Happy Accident—The serendipity that originally sparked this collection of historical photography also prevails on viewing these vast holdings. Read more