Mata Hari: the myth and the maiden -

Mata Hari: the myth and the maiden

Aug. 17, 2017

From 14 October 2017 to 2 April 2018, the Museum of Friesland in Leeuwarden presents the exhibition Mata Hari: the myth and the maiden. Exactly 100 years after her death, the museum tells this icon’s full story for the first time. Margaretha Geertruida Zelle from Leeuwarden transformed into the world-famous dancer Mata Hari at the beginning of the last century. During the First World War, she was arrested by the French secret service and consequentially was executed. More than 100 objects from Holland and other countries come to Leeuwarden especially for this exhibition. Among them is a selection of recently declassified French military files, which will be displayed in public for the first time. Mata Hari: The myth and the maiden is the largest exhibition ever about Margaretha Geertruida Zelle's life.

On 13 March 1905, Mata Hari made her dance debut. From Paris, she conquered dance theatres throughout Europe, from Rome to Berlin and from Vienna to Madrid. She soon became renowned for her wealthy and influential lovers and admirers. Twelve years later, the French secret service arrested Mata Hari after shadowing her for a while. Margaretha gave contradictory statements during her trial, hence a war tribunal found her guilty. The sentence: ‘Mort’.


The legal files relating to the case against Mata Hari have been privately kept in the French military archives in Vincennes for the last 100 years. Surveillance reports, transcripts of her hearings and key evidence, such as the intercepted telegrams of a German military attaché in Madrid, provide insights into Mata Hari's trial. These pieces will be shown for the first time in the Museum of Friesland during the exhibition.

Maiden and mother

The exhibition takes visitors past key moments in Margaretha's life: a poetry album, school report and self-written poems about a happy youth in Leeuwarden. Recently acquired objects, letters and photographs provide new insights into her seldom-discussed role as a woman and mother in the Dutch East Indies. A baby book shows how she kept track of the development of her son Norman and daughter Non. After the loss of their son, the couple became embroiled in a divorce, her husband refused to pay alimony and denied his ex-wife contact with her daughter. Margaretha wrote about her dilemma: should she stay near her daughter or go to Paris to build a career?


After her death, Mata Hari and her exploits became legends. She is a style icon, sex symbol and femme fatale. Her life is the subject of countless books and speaks to people’s imagination around the world. Film stars like Greta Garbo, Sylvia Kristel and Marlene Dietrich performed the role of Mata Hari. In the exhibition, the Museum of Friesland’s collection is complemented by loans from, amongst others, The National Archives in London, Musée Guimet in Paris, the French military archive in Vincennes, the Bibliothèque nationale de France, the National Archive of the Netherlands, and various private collections.

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