White Desert Gold

Chile Saltpeter and Hamburg

Poster motif‘ White desert gold’

To mark the 100th anniversary of the Chile House in Hamburg, the exhibition focuses on the working and living conditions of saltpeter workers in the Atacama Desert in Chile. Their exploitation and hard labour in the driest desert in the world, as well as the high demand for the ‘white gold’ as a basis for fertiliser and explosives, established the wealth of European ‘saltpeter barons’ at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, such as Hermann C. J. Fölsch from Hamburg and Henry B. Sloman, the builder of the Chilehaus.

The archaeological and ethnographic Chile collections of the MARKK were also often excavated or acquired by German businessmen active in the raw materials trade. The exhibition tells of the resistance and identity of the workers and sheds light on practices of one-sided exploitation of raw materials that have not lost their relevance to this day with the mining of lithium. In the exhibition, historical photographs from private archives show work and life in the saltpeter works and are critically contextualised at the same time. They are juxtaposed with objects from the MARKK and contemporary artistic perspectives from Chile, which shed light on the social repercussions of the saltpeter era right up to the present day.

Supported by the Ministry of Culture and Media of the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg, Freunde des MARKK e. V. owners’ association H. C. J. Fölsch-Erben and Saal Digital Fotoservice GmbH.

A project in collaboration with the German Port Museum Hamburg at Schuppen 50a (Hamburg Historical Museums Foundation) and the workshop presentation ‘Uncomfortable Memories’ 5 June – 31 October 2024


Supported by:




Fölsch Block Logo



Cultural Partner:


© Museum am Rothenbaum & Autorinnen 2024

Catalogue (German/Spanish):
Weißes Wüstengold. Chile-Salpeter und Hamburg / Oro blanco del desierto. El salitre chileno y Hamburgo.
Edited by Christine Chávez
Authors: Benjamín Ballester, Christine Chávez, Damir Galaz-Mandakovic, Sergio González
Museum am Rothenbaum & Authors 2024

ISBN 978-3-944193-28-1, Price: € 17,-

From the Exhibition

Chilehaus, Hamburg
Blasting for saltpetre mining in the Atacama Desert
Saltpetre workers in a factory shop, Chile, early 20th century
factory coin
Knitted purse with silver coins
Poncho for men
Knives, harpoon and arrowheads
Video still from: Caliche Sangre y Muerte (‘Caliche Blood and Death’)