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The Sámi Collection

The Museum Europäischer Kulturen (MEK) houses one of the largest and most significant collection of Sámi artefacts outside of Northern Europe. Its origins date back to the Königlich Preussische Kunstkammer. Most of it was amassed between 1880 and 1929 on behalf of the Museum für Völkerkunde (today the Ethnologisches Museum). It thus originated primarily in the colonial context of non-European ethnological collections.

Sámi Cultural Heritage and “Nordic Colonialism”

The Sámi are the only indigenous population in Europe. They originate from the region of Sápmi, which extends over the northern parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland and the Russian Kola Peninsula. From the 16th century onwards, as part of the processes of “Nordic colonialism”, the Sámi people were subjected to marginalisation and most of them to strong assimilation policies. Their cultural traditions and languages as well as their practical and spiritual knowledge were suppressed or destroyed. At the same time, material and immaterial expressions of their historical and contemporary culture were collected and distributed to museums throughout Europe and North America. Sámi culture was categorised as Europe’s “tribal other” and exhibited in an exoticising manner.

Exoticising exhibition of Sámi cultural heritage in the German city of Halle (Saale). Photograph by Franz Dubbick in 1925, VIII Eu 7594 © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Museum Europäischer Kulturen

This photo shows the Sámi woman Inger (Inker) Anni Magga whilst inkle weaving, with the children Iisko and Jooseppi Magga with their father Heikki Magga, as well as Piera Magga and the young Hannes Kitti (from right to left) in the background.

The Collection

The Sámi Collection comprises around 1,000 objects from the 17th to the 21st century. These objects are very heterogeneous in terms of material, use and meaning, and mainly belong to the areas of everyday culture and crafts (duodji). There are also drawings, copperplate engravings, paintings and around 670 historical photographs.

Entry “[2.] 3. / Two Laplandic magic drums – Lapland“ as well as “5. / A Runic calendar made from wood – Lapland”, Inventory “II. Europe” (Sample) © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Museum Europäischer Kulturen / Ute Franz-Scarciglia 2013

Among the oldest objects in the collection are two shaman drums (goavdát/gievrieh). For the Sámi people, drums like these have enormous spiritual and cultural significance. The historical confiscation and burning of most of the drums in the course of imposed Christianisation is perceived today as a symbol of the colonisation of Sápmi and thus the beginning of paternalism and oppression.

Ládjogahpir (Horn hat), 18th century, II C 968 © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Museum Europäischer Kulturen / Christian Krug 2018

The MEK also houses four women’s “horn hats”, known as ládjogahpirat, which fall out of in Sápmi today due to a religiously motivated ban on wearing them in the 19th century. Their rediscovery in European collections sparked great interest, especially among younger Sámi women, which led to several publications, artistic projects and the renewed production of the ládjogahpirat.

Collaborative Research

Apart from the drums and the “horn hats”, there has been little research carried out on the Sámi Collection. Names and descriptions often date back to the 19th and early 20th centuries. Indigenous terminology or contexts of use are for the most part missing, and place names are sometimes incorrect or vague. The history of the circumstances under which the objects came to the museum is also virtually unexplored. The MEK is dedicated to doing more research on the collection in the future and making it more visible. This will be done in close collaboration with the Sámi heritage communities.

The individual objects and works in the Sámi Collection can be accessed in Collections Online, the online portal for the collections of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin.


Baglo, Cathrine (2014): Rethinking Sami Agency during Living Exhibitions. From the Age of Empire to the Postwar World, in: Laura R. Graham & H. Glenn Penny (eds.), Performing Indigeneity. Global Histories and Contemporary Experiences. Lincoln, London: University of Nebraska Press, 136–168.

Dolezel, Eva (2022): Heiliges Objekt, Staffage, Forschungsgegenstand: Samische Schamanentrommeln aus dem Museum Europäischer Kulturen (forthcoming).

Finbog, Liisa-Rávná (2019): Duodji: A Sámi Aesthetic Practice, in: Susanne Hætta & Katya García-Antón (eds.), Mázejoavku: Indigenous Collectivity and Art. Oslo, 29–31.

Gaup, Káren Elle, Jensen, Inger & Pareli, Leif (eds.) (2021): Bååstede: The Return of Sámi Cultural Heritage. Trondheim.

Guttorm, Gunvor (2020): Duodji and Its Stories, in: Katya García-Antón, Harald Gaski & Gunvor Guttorm (eds.), Let the River Flow: An Indigenous Uprising and Its Legacy in Art, Ecology and Politics. Oslo, 253–264.

Harlin, Eeva-Kristiina (2018): Recording Sámi Heritage in European Museums, in: Larissa Förster, Iris Edenheiser, Sarah Fründt & Heike Hartmann (eds.), Provenienzforschung zu ethnografischen Sammlungen der Kolonialzeit: Positionen in der aktuellen Debatte. Berlin, 69–84.

Harlin, Eeva-Kristiina (2021): Ládjogahpir Rematriated – The Sámi Ontology of a Museum Object, in: Iris Edenheiser, Elisabeth Tietmeyer & Susanne Boersma (eds.), What's Missing? Collecting and Exhibiting Europe. Berlin, 101–112.

Harlin, Eeva-Kristiina & Pieski, Outi (2020): Ládjogahpir – Máttaráhkuid gábagahpir. The Ládjogahpir – The Foremothers’ Hat of Pride. Kárášjohka.

Höglund, Johan & Burnett, Linda Andersson (2019): Introduction: Nordic Colonialisms and Scandinavian Studies. Scandinavian Studies 91(1–2): 1–12.

Hylland Eriksen, Thomas, Sanna Valkonen & Jarno Valkonen (eds.) (2019): Knowing From the Indigenous North: Sámi Approaches to History, Politics and Belonging. London.

Lehtola, Veli-Pekka (2004): The Sámi People: Traditions in Transition. Inari.

Lehtola, Veli-Pekka (2013): Sami on the Stages and in the Zoos of Europe, in: Kajsa Andersson (eds.), L´Image du Sápmi II. Études compares. Örebro: Örebro University. S. 324–352.

Lehtola, Veli-Pekka (2015): Sámi Histories, Colonialism, and Finland. Arctic Anthropology 52(2): 22–36.

Nordin, Jonas M. & Ojala, Carl-Gösta (2017): Collecting, Connecting, Constructing: Early Modern Commodification and Globalization of Sámi Material Culture. Journal of Material Culture 23(1): 58–82.

Pentikäinen, Juha (2010): The Shamanic Drum as Cognitive Map. Cahiers de littérature orale 67-68: 1–12.

Tietmeyer, Elisabeth (2008): “Sagt nicht ‘Lappen’ zu uns!”: Schamanentrommeln der Sami / “Don’t call us ‘Laps’”: Shaman drums of the Sami, in: Elisabeth Tietmeyer & Irene Ziehe (eds.), Europa entdecken! Discover Europe! Berlin, 35–45.

Valkonen, Sanna/ Áile Aikio / Saara Alakorva & Sigga-Marja Magga (eds.) (2022): The Sámi World. London.

Weißmann, Michaela (2010): Bilder der Sámi - Wahrnehmung, Vorstellung, Identität. Historische Fotografien aus dem Museum Europäischer Kulturen - Staatliche Museen zu Berlin; 1870 - 1930. Freiburg.