The weirdest thing about Harry’s Harbor Bazaar, in Hamburg, isn’t the maze of musty shelves holding African masks and voodoo dolls, homoerotic New Guinean figurines, or century-old shrunken heads. The weirdest thing is how familiar it all feels, how it knocks on the brain with a set of bone knuckles, like a memory from the uncomfortable past.
Harry’s has been established in Hamburg since 1954, when Harry Rosenberg converted his modest stamp-and-coin shop into a museum of exotic things handed down from an old sailors’ pub.
The collection has changed ownership and location several times, most recently in 2013—right now it floats in a converted crane ship in Hamburg’s Harbor City. It opens every weekend for visitors to wander the aisles built into the hull. The items have no information cards, because in too many cases no one can say where they’re from.
Not just laughing wooden masks but painted shields and spears; red-faced grinning devils; buck-toothed carvings of men; headless figures of women, depicted with giant phalluses; one brass and one wooden statue of the same naked, swaying Hindu goddess; fetish faces made of colored beads and palm-frond hair; and stuffed jungle creatures—including a lifelike chimpanzee with a hat of magenta feathers—loom out at you like figures from a clichéd but terrible dream.
The ship lists while you walk around. The aisles smell like moldy rope and old wood. About a quarter-century ago, Tom Waits discovered Harry’s when playing a concert in Hamburg, and the collection inspired a song on his Black Rider album, “Lucky Day (Overture).”
The vision of exoticism on display at Harry’s is so fusty it’s almost offensive; a visitor too sensitive to whiffs of Orientalism will hyperventilate. But the real shame is the muteness of the shelves. How did everything get here? The honest story of a single item might fill a chapter in a book. At last count the full inventory held more than 350,000 pieces, most of them in a separate warehouse, which makes the chorus of silence at Harry’s far more terrible than all the laughing masks.