Key-Visual der Ausstellung "Weg aus der Schweiz"

Leaving Switzerland

Emigration Stories after 1848

Exhibition | accessibility.time_to


Well into the 20th century, Switzerland was a country of emigration. Just a few generations ago, economic hardship was driving thousands of Swiss to emigrate to places like France, Brazil and the USA. The exhibition ‘Leaving Switzerland’ tells the dramatic stories of women, men and families who left here to try their luck in far-off lands. But even today, emigration is still a topical issue. Around 800,000 Swiss citizens currently live abroad. They’re often referred to as the ‘Fifth Switzerland’ and they also have their part in the exhibition.

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Leaving Switzerland – Emigration Stories after 1848

National Museum Zurich | 7.1.2022 - 24.4.2022
published on 5.1.2022

For centuries, Switzerland has been a country of emigration. Many people fled poverty; some were seeking adventure; still others were coerced into leaving their home. A new exhibition at the National Museum takes a look at some of the routes people have taken from Switzerland into the wider world.

Until the early 20th century, men, women and families were leaving for places like France, Brazil and the USA, mostly fleeing impoverished circumstances. It was only as society became more affluent that this number decreased. Nevertheless, around 11% of Swiss citizens live abroad today. This group is also referred to as ‘the fifth Switzerland’, and its members become a much more visible community especially in the lead-up to voting in any referenda.

The exhibition explores the day-to-day realities of emigrant life. There were the Guggenheims, a Jewish family who emigrated to the USA in the 19th century and became one of the richest families in the country through their canny business dealings. Or the brothers Samuel and Johann Berger, who emigrated to Russia in 1874 where they became successful cheesemakers. But many of those who emigrated never managed to achieve the ‘rags to riches’ dream, and continued to live miserable lives in their new homelands – lives that were often blighted by crippling homesickness. It’s likely the pining for Switzerland was felt most keenly among those who had not left of their own free will. It was not uncommon for communities to push some of their residents to emigrate. In return, the community paid emigrants’ travel costs, because ultimately that was less of a drain on the public purse than paying years of pauper relief.

However, it wasn’t just the poor who left Switzerland. A thirst for adventure and a growing demand for expertise also lured many people across the borders. After the death of her husband Adèle d’Affry from Fribourg emigrated to Paris, where she established an identity for herself under the male pseudonym ‘Marcello’. Her atelier became a gathering place for the glitterati of 19th-century Parisian society. Beat Richner operated at the other end of the social scale. From the 1990s onwards Richner, a paediatrician from Zurich, built a number of children’s hospitals in Cambodia, enabling the poorest among Cambodian society to receive free medical care.

Today around 800,000 Swiss people live abroad. Most of them – more than 60% – live in Europe. They’re eligible to vote in Swiss referenda and elections, and there is an official body, the Auslandschweizer-Organisation (ASO), that represents their interests vis-à-vis the Swiss authorities and parliament.

More on the exhibition


Deck of an emigrant ship, c. 1905.

© akg-images / Waldemar Abegg

Unemployed people from Switzerland emigrating to Brazil, c. 1930.


Douglas DC-4-1009 A, HB-ILA Genève flying over New York, 1947.

© ETH-Bibliothek Zürich, Bildarchiv/Stiftung Luftbild Schweiz / Fotograf: Swissair / LBS_SR03-03469 / CC BY-SA 4.0

Workers in the fermentation barn of the Bavaria Estate tobacco plantation, c. 1884–1887.

Swiss National Museum

Group photo of expatriate Swiss in the New York Swiss Club, Hotel Astor, 1905.

Swiss National Museum

Châlet suisse in Léopoldville, Congo, 1933.

© Swiss Federal Archives, Bern

Poster with advertisement from a travel agency, c. 1930.

© Verkehrshaus der Schweiz, VA-40166x

Newspaper advertisement “Off to America” in Bote der Urschwyz, Schwyz, February 1881.

© Staatsarchiv Schwyz

A view of the exhibition.

© Swiss National Museum

A view of the exhibition.

© Swiss National Museum

A view of the exhibition.

© Swiss National Museum

Swiss National Museum press contact

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Exhibition imprint

  • Overall management Denise Tonella, Andreas Spillmann (bis | jusqu’au | sino a | till 31.3.2021)
  • Curators and Concept Marina Amstad, Pia Schubiger, Anna Wälli
  • Project direction Marina Amstad
  • Scenography Gasser, Derungs Innenarchitekturen GmbH
  • Graphics Thomas Lehmann, LDSGN Zürich
  • Advisory committee Denise Tonella, Heidi Amrein, Markus Leuthard, Beat Högger, Sabrina Médioni
  • Controlling of project Sabrina Médioni
  • Cultural Services and Museum Education Gaby Fierz, fierz-kulturprojekte, Stefanie Bittmann
  • Advertising graphic Roli Hofer
  • Technical management Henrike Binder, Ladina Fait
  • Exhibition construction Bachir Ezzerari, Janine auf der Maur, Ladina Fait, Marc Hägeli, Mike Roder, David Schwitter, Aroma Productions AG
  • Conservation management Tino Zagermann
  • Conservation and montage of objects Anna Jurt, Elisabeth Kleine, Tino Zagermann
  • lending and logistics of objects Christian Affentranger, David Blazquez, Simon D’Hollosy, Reto Hegetschweiler, Maya Jucker, Markus Scherer, Angela Zeier
  • Photography Jörg Brandt
  • Picture library Andrea Kunz, Fabian Müller
  • IT / Web René Vogel, Danilo Rüttimann
  • Media stations Thomas Bucher, Ulrich Heiniger, Pasquale Pollastro, Danilo Rüttimann, René Vogel
  • Marketing and Communication Andrej Abplanalp, Alexander Rechsteiner, Carole Neuenschwander, Sebastiano Mereu, Anna-Britta Maag
  • Translations Laurence Neuffer, Language Factory

Items generously loaned by

  • Beverlie Blee-Salt, England
  • Erben Samuel Berger
  • ETH-Bibliothek, Hochschularchiv der ETH Zürich
  • Heimatmuseum Rothrist
  • Roland Isler, Heatherton, Australien
  • Kantonsbibliothek Vadiana, St. Gallen
  • Dr. Jacques Edgar Müller, Zumikon
  • Musée d’art et d’histoire, Fribourg
  • Musée gruérien, Bulle
  • Museum der Kulturen Basel
  • Ortsmuseum Dietikon
  • Righetti & Partner GmbH
  • Sammlung Verkehrshaus der Schweiz, Luzern
  • Schweizerisches Bundesarchiv, Bern
  • Literaturarchiv, Schweizerische Nationalbibliothek, Bern
  • Schweizerisches Sozialarchiv, Zürich
  • Station Ritz, Verein Besucherzentrum Niederwald
  • Staatsarchiv Aargau
  • Staatsarchiv des Kantons Bern
  • Staatsarchiv Graubünden, Chur
  • Staatsarchiv Schwyz
  • Stiftung Kantha Bopha, Zürich
  • Universitätsbibliothek Lausanne
  • Völkerkundemuseum der Universität Zürich
  • Zentralbibliothek Zürich