mata hari the myth and the maiden

The largest ever Mata Hari exhibition will open in the Museum of Friesland on 14 October 2017, one hundred years after her death. Personal belongings, photographs, scrapbooks, letters and military records will introduce you to Margaretha Zelle, the girl behind the iconic Mata Hari. Travel with her from her hometown of Leeuwarden to the Dutch East Indies, where fate dealt her a different hand. Experience her glorious rise in Parisian dance theatres and discover the web of intrigue that ensnared her during the First World War.

Aged 29, the Frisian girl Margaretha was a media hype in Paris. As Mata Hari, she entranced high society with her exotic dancing in which she slowly exposed her body. The newspapers almost ran out of superlatives when describing this sensation. For ten successful years, her name was synonymous with sensuality and glamour. But her countless affairs with men in uniform and her travels throughout Europe during the First World War alerted the suspicions of the French secret service. In early 1917, she was arrested on charges of spying for the Germans. Mata Hari died on 15 October that year, executed by a French firing squad in the forests outside Paris.

the myth

After her death, Mata Hari’s life story took on mythic proportions. She is still a regarded as a style icon, sex symbol and femme fatale. Her life is the subject of countless books and resonates with people all around the world.  Film stars like Greta Garbo, Sylvia Kristel and Marlene Dietrich performed the role of Mata Hari. As an irresistible but also immoral and dangerous woman, she inspired characters like the later Bond girls. Few people know that this world-renowned icon was born in Friesland.

the maiden

How did the daughter of a wealthy Leeuwarden hat seller become an international myth? Where did her preference for men in uniform come from? Why did her marriage fail and how did fate treat Margaretha in the Dutch East Indies? What role did motherhood play in her life? What drove her to seek a new life in Paris? Was she a dreamer or a spy – if the latter, then did she work for the Germans or the French, or both?

Mata Hari op de renbaan, 1911, Collectie Fries Museum, Leeuwarden

on show for the first time

The life of Margaretha Geertruida Zelle is a dramatic cocktail of courage and glory, loss and betrayal. Fifty-five original objects from the Netherlands and abroad tell her story in the largest ever Mata Hari exhibition. Personal possessions, photographs, scrapbooks, letters and military files – some of which have never been shared with the public until now – shed new light on the girl behind the myth.

‘I’m tired of fighting life and I want one of two things: either Nonnie lives with me and I behave like a decent mother, or I’m going to enjoy the beautiful life being offered to me here. I know that that life ends in tragedy – but I’m over that.’

The exhibition Mata Hari, the myth and the maiden can be viewed in the Museum of Friesland in Leeuwarden from 14 October 2017 to 2 April 2018.